Proposed regulations could sink placer miners
Placer miners in northern British Columbia often feel caught up in David and Goliath-type battles when it comes to their dealings with government officials.
Faced with stringent government regulations and restrictions, environmental and land claims issues plus rising costs of fees, fuel and transportation, some placer miners panning for gold in the Cariboo say they are losing ground.
The situation could get worse, says Cariboo Mining Association (CMA) president Chris Winther. He believes proposed changes arising from a 2010 Ministry of Environment (now Ministry of Forest, Lands, and Natural Resource Operations or FLNRO) report will “kill” the placer mining industry in the Cariboo.
The report posted Wednesday on the CMA’s website, made its way into Winther’s hands a few days ago – he won’t say how.
“It was obtained by people who got it through [a request] under the Freedom of Information Act,” Winther told the Free Press on Thursday. “I just got hold of it myself a few days ago. I really don’t think they (environmental ministry officials) wanted us to know about it.”
The document is an outline of an audit done of area placer mining operations conducted by ministry ecosystem staff during July and August of 2010. The report says the study was initiated in response to a “substantial increase” in the number of placer Notices of Work being received by government and concern about potential environmental impacts associated with this industry.
The report says of the 23 “chosen at random” active placer tenures they inspected most of them (74 per cent) were found to be in non-compliance with their Notices of Work. There was no advance notice of the ministry inspections which is why Winther refers to it as a “clandestine” audit.
He also disputes its conclusions:
“The results of the audit highlight the risk of aquatic, fish and riparian habitat impacts occurring in high value fisheries waters with inherent hydrological sensitivity,” the report notes. Key findings noted in the report include “inadequate reclamation (restoration) work,” unreported (environmental) disturbances and, in more than half the sites, work being done within the 10 metre placer riparian reserve setback.
Recommendations in the report include “regionally stepping up compliance and enforcement on placer mine operations” and putting into place more environmental protections. Why did the ‘audit’ report take so long to surface?
In response to queries by the Free Press on Thursday, Brennan Clarke, FLNRO public affairs officer, said the environment ministry has been going through a “restructuring and reorganization” process in the past two years. He suggests the report was likely “forwarded from one office to the other.”
Why it was not made public until now is not clear.
Winther agrees that some placer miners need to clean up their act and those who don’t are subject to severe penalties, he says. But his main focus is on how the report and its recommendations could impact miners who are doing their best to work within regulations and boundaries.
“Right now we have a 10 metre setback from the high water mark in creeks and streams where we can’t work. We’re not allowed to put any dirt in there – if you see any discolouration, that is a problem. Now the MOE is talking about pushing us back to 30 metres and that’s the area close to the streams where the gold usually gets deposited.”
Winther is even more concerned about other proposed changes.
“They also want to stop us from working in ephemeral streams (waterbeds, wetlands which exist for a short period for instance after snowfall.) That will kill the industry. If you look on overlay maps of the region, you will see a large part of it is ephemeral streams – it makes the whole watershed look blue. All that would be out of bounds for us, so it’s going to make a lot of property out there unmineable.”
Winther adds the report needs clarification and correction.
“We want to meet with the [environment] ministry people. We want to get the facts out and make things clear because this report is quite damaging.” He said he wrote government officials at the Williams Lake office requesting a meeting to talk about their plans and its impact on area miners. On Thursday, Winther said he had been advised by the “mines office” that ministry staff has agreed to meet with some CMA members on Jan. 22 in Quesnel.
There is strength in numbers as Winther points out on his website:
“Most miners are basically solitary sorts who simply want to carry on with mining but we realize we are dependent upon each other for support when it comes to dealing with the different challenges that face our industry.”
This – the audit report – is one of those challenges, he said.