Rule of Law

Sustainable mining and quarrying

The Toronto-based environmental and public policy research institute, Environment Probe, takes on the Mining Association of Nova Scotia, which cautions against local decision making. Probe recommends empowering affected individuals and communities to determine whether and how proposed projects will go ahead. To further ensure that mining and quarrying are sustainable, Probe recommends making mining companies bear all their environmental risks and costs.

By Elizabeth Brubaker, the Executive Director of Environment Probe [a sister division of Probe International]

Who should decide whether – and how – proposed mines and quarries will go ahead? If you ask many environmental groups, the answer is society at large, which must grant those proposing new projects a “social licence to operate.” If you ask the Mining Association of Nova Scotia – where a number of mines and quarries are in the works – the answer is the provincial government, which must “decide what is in the best interests of communities and the entire province.”

If you ask Environment Probe, the most important – and the most often neglected – decision makers are the individuals and communities who will be directly affected by a proposed project. These parties aren’t just stake-holders. They are rights-holders. They are the individual or communal owners who hold conventional or aboriginal title to the land. And they are the neighbours downwind and downstream, who, when governments do not issue pollution permits, have common-law property rights to a clean environment.

The mining association adamantly opposes empowering such rights-holders, warning that “additional regulation or involvement by municipalities, community groups or even individuals would be unworkable…. Any move in the direction of allowing individual landowners or members of a community to block mine approvals would be disastrous for the industry and the province.”

The mining association wants to leave decision making to the provinces. But frankly, our provinces aren’t doing a great job of protecting the environment. Federal environmental assessments aren’t better. Even if an EA finds that a project is likely to cause significant harm, the law provides that the government can decide that “these environmental effects are justified in the circumstances.”

Once the decision to go ahead with a project has been made, the mining association recommends that the government forcibly acquire the lands of owners who oppose it – which is exactly what Nova Scotia did to hasten the development of the Touquoy open-pit gold mine, when an Australian-owned mining company couldn’t persuade a Christmas tree farmer to sell his land, which had been in his family for more than 120 years. The Eastern Shore Forest Watch Association cautions that the Touquoy mine’s EA was inadequate. It warns of the release of arsenic, copper, and other contaminants into local waters, and of cyanide gas and acid-rain compounds into the air. And it notes that an effluent spill or a tailings pond dam failure could poison the entire watershed.

Nova Scotia landowners are likewise being forced to make way for another environmentally destructive project – the Black Point gravel quarry. With almost no warning, the municipality of Guysborough expropriated the land around the beautiful Fogarty’s Cove and plans to lease it to a US aggregate giant. If approved, the land will become part of the quarry, and adjacent Chedabucto Bay will become a marine terminal. (For more information on the Touquoy and Black Point expropriations, see Corporate Bullying: Expropriating for private purposes in Nova Scotia.)

The local fishermen’s association warns of the quarry’s potential impacts on the 72 fishing licence holders and four lobster fishermen in the area. The quarry may also threaten the jobs in tourism that rely on unspoiled wilderness. The Chronicle Herald notes that “perhaps the public interest in grinding up scenery for gravel at least needs further debate.”

Better than more debate would be to give power to the people who will be directly affected by proposed projects. These people know their lands and waters better than anyone else. They rely on them – sometimes for their livelihoods, almost always for their health – and must live with any changes to them. Instead of expropriating, governments should allow rights-holders to decide whether or not their lands should be turned into mines.

Governments should also ensure that those harmed by mines retain their common-law rights to sue. The threat of being held liable for contamination will create powerful incentives for mining companies to protect nearby land, water, and air.

Projects that are truly sustainable shouldn’t be propped up with subsidies – not with below-market land prices that expropriations provide, nor with permissions to pollute, nor with tax breaks or royalty holidays. Instead, the “polluter pays principle” must be slavishly respected: All costs and risks should be borne by the mining companies themselves.

In applying this principle, governments should require liability insurance that will cover the full costs of clean-up in the event of an accident. Mining accidents do happen, as this summer’s disaster at BC’s Mount Polley mine tragically illustrated. The tailings pond of that open-pit copper and gold mine burst, spewing 14.5 million cubic meters of tailings and water – possibly contaminated by arsenic, lead, cadmium, mercury, nickel, cobalt – into local creeks and lakes. The company had failed to heed warnings about the structure. It had also failed to prepare financially for the disaster, which could cost hundreds of millions of dollars to clean up. The company president committed to paying for the clean-up to the best of his ability, but his admission that the company doesn’t have sufficient funds in the bank, and doesn’t have sufficient insurance, undermines the value of that commitment.

Governments should also require remediation bonds or letters of credit that are sufficient to cover the full costs of restoration, monitoring, and maintenance after the mine’s closure. Our landscape is littered with abandoned mines – perhaps 10,000 of them – and too often taxpayers have been left holding the bag for costly clean-ups.

The original version of this blog is available here.

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Please support Environment Probe’s work with a generous donation. And please help Environment Probe send a message to both governments and the mining industry: Only by empowering directly affected individuals and communities, and by making mines bear all their environmental costs, can we ensure that the industry is truly sustainable.

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