Ottawa is keeping appropriate track of how Canada’s mining industry releases effluent into the country’s waterways, says the federal environment commissioner.
But in an audit released Tuesday, Julie Gelfand found that nobody’s responsible for fixing problems when they are discovered.
“When environmental effects were found, there was no requirement on anybody’s part to actually have to do anything,” said Gelfand. “Nobody actually seems to have to deal with the issue.”
The audit found other gaps as well.
Environment Canada didn’t have enough information for about one-third of Canada’s metal mines to know what was happening. The department completed only two-thirds of its planned inspections for non-metals operations such as coal or oilsands mines.
As well, the department only monitored about 60 per cent of the plans that companies filed to compensate for fish habitat lost to tailings ponds.
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“As a result, the department did not always know whether the mining companies performed their planned actions to offset the loss of fish and their habitat,” the audit says.
Gelfand’s report says potash, coal and oilsands mines should be subject to more frequent inspections. She also raises concerns about the lower overall number of mine inspections in Ontario.
Effects of the audit’s recommendations could be far-reaching.
A 2017 report from Environment Canada found three-quarters of mines that did studies on the environmental consequences of their operations found at least one impact. Half those mines found effects on fish and their habitat.
All the effects were considered strong enough to be environmentally risky.
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The same report stated about 75 per cent of the mines that checked found reduced biodiversity among bugs that fish eat. About half the mines looked at found impacts near the site and far afield.
Tailings ponds are also a growing concern.
In addition to the vast ponds at Alberta’s oilsands, the number of water bodies where effluent may be stored has grown almost tenfold since 2006 to 46 from five.
The government has accepted the audit’s recommendations.
Environment Canada has promised to develop options by next spring for how to clean up problems. Fisheries and Oceans acknowledged its efforts to keep track of tailings ponds have fallen short and said it would beef up monitoring by next April.