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Jon Moore, Simon Fraser University professor, on left, and Mark Connor, Taku River Tlingit First Nation fisheries coordinator, look over the the banks of the Tulsequah River, approximately 90 km south by air from Atlin, B.C. on September 2021. The river flows by the Tulsequah Chief and New Polaris Mines.Handout

Authorities are underestimating the risk that a growth in mining activity poses to salmon populations in the Pacific northwest, a group of 23 scientists and policy experts from the United States and Canada has warned in a newly published review.

Despite rising demand for metals that will be needed for the transition to electric vehicles and other low-carbon technologies, the group said government regulators should be looking more broadly and across jurisdictional boundaries to control the combined impacts of multiple projects that mining companies are looking to develop throughout the region.

Salmonids – the biological family that includes salmon and trout – are particularly vulnerable to such impacts because of the way their life cycles are tied to every part of a river system, from headwaters to estuary.

“We focused on salmon and trout species because if you design laws that are protective of those species you are really protecting many aspects of watershed health,” said Chris Sergeant, a research scientist at the University of Montana who specializes on the impacts of mining operations on freshwater ecosystems.

In their review, published last week in the journal Science Advances, Mr. Sergeant and his coauthors said that regulators should take into account the anticipated effects of climate change when considering proposals. These include stressors on fish populations and threats to mining infrastructure from floods, landslides and other mishaps.

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To understand the changing risks as mining activity increases, the group drew on more than 200 sources, including peer-reviewed studies, government databases and industry reports. The result summarizes the current state of knowledge about salmonid ecology and identifies ways that mining can affect fish and their habitats in watersheds that span large parts of Alaska, the Yukon, British Columbia and Washington state.

Different categories of mining operations were included in the review, from large-scale open pit mines and mountain top removal to smaller-scale placer mining, in which stream beds are dug up to collect gold and other metals deposited in loose sediment. The review considered impacts from a range of mine-related activities, such as exploration, construction, extraction, processing and smelting, as well as effects that continue after a mine is closed.

All told, the group estimates that more than 3600 mines have operated over the past 165 years in watersheds that empty out along the western coastline. Among them are watersheds that host the most productive and culturally important salmon populations in North America.

While there is evidence that mines have negatively affected salmon and trout through pollution, habitat loss and altered water temperatures, the group said that a lack of transparency and poor access to data have obscured the full impact of mining in the region. This, in turn, makes it difficult to arrive at an independent understanding of how much mining can be permitted in the future without jeopardizing key fish populations.

“We need to use all the available data to accurately portray the risks,” Mr. Sergeant said.

In a separate briefing document, the group recommended that large mining projects – especially those with impacts likely to cross international borders – should automatically trigger coordinated watershed-scale planning and assessment. They further recommended that monitoring protocols should be set before projects are approved and impact assessments should take a precautionary approach when considering climate change and the cumulative effects of mining.

Ben Collison, a researcher at the School for Resource and Environmental Studies at Dalhousie University who was not involved in the review, said the authors provided a comprehensive overview of the issues at stake.

“They’ve outlined all the factors that should be considered within project assessments that aren’t currently being considered,” he said.

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In a statement, British Columbia’s Ministry of Energy, Mines and Low Carbon Innovation said the province is committed to “robust regulatory oversight of mining” and is also working with Indigenous governments on “new tools” for land-use planning and project assessment.

Last month the province announced that it had struck a consent-based decision-making agreement with the Tahltan First Nation, which included assessment of a proposal to reopen a gold and silver mine at Eskay Creek.

The province also said that it requires an assessment of the cumulative effects of projects at both the site and watershed level.

However, Jonathan Moore, a researcher of aquatic ecosystems at Simon Fraser University, said that within the current system, the cumulative effects of projects can be downplayed.

“We know that the more you push ecosystems, the more risks there are and and yet the policy really ignores that on a functional level,” he said.

Michael Goehring, president and CEO of the Mining Association of British Columbia said that, from the industry’s point of view, the province’s regulatory framework for mining is strong and improving. As one example, he cited a report last year from the province’s independent chief mines auditor which found that BC’s tailings storage facility regulations compare favourably with other jurisdictions worldwide.

He added that current the demand for metals, such as copper for electric vehicles and silver used in solar panels, represents a once-in-a-generation opportunity that the province can ill afford to squander.

“We can have the best critical mineral strategy and world class deposits, but if a company can’t get a mine approved, that investment will go elsewhere – and elsewhere is other jurisdictions with fewer environmental protections,” Mr. Goehring said.

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