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Operations of Mount Polley Mine in British Columbia to be put on hold beginning May

Jan 24, 2019

The Mount Polley Mine’s tailings dam failed in 2014, discharging waste into nearby waterways.

The controversial Canadian mine that became the poster child for the risks of transboundary mining is suspending operations. But critics say the mine’s economic failure is a worrying development.

Imperial Metals released a statement last week blaming low copper prices for the mine losing money.

U.S. copper prices are hovering at $2.70 a pound. Imperial Metals said it’s costing $3 bucks a pound to extract the metal at Mount Polley.

“It’s something all miners have to contend with is there is some movement and volatility in the prices,” said Jamie Koutsoukis, an analyst at Moody’s Investors Service, which rates companies’ risk of defaulting. She tracks Canadian metals markets and mining sector. “In all my portfolio of companies I cover, I haven’t seen another company suspend operations at this time because of the copper prices.”

Relatively low ore grade at Mount Polley could be a factor, she said.

Imperial Metals shut down its Huckleberry Mine in 2016 citing falling copper prices. The Vancover, B.C.-based company did not respond for comment.

Its Mount Polley Mine is reviled by environmentalists in both Canada and Alaska following a catastrophic dam breach in 2014. Millions of gallons of waste discharged into nearby lakes and the Cariboo River.

Regulators in British Columbia declined to file charges leading critics to decry the lack of accountability over the disaster.

While not technically upstream from a transboundary watershed, the copper mine has become a symbol of the risks to Alaska’s watersheds posed by other mines in British Columbia.

Still, mine critics say the shutdown isn’t a victory. “It doesn’t mean that the waste is going away,” said Tis Peterman, who represents Wrangell’s tribe for the Southeast Alaska Indigenous Transboundary Commission, or SEITC, a consortium of 15 tribes serves as a watchdog over transboundary mining.

“In light of nobody ever being charged with this humongous breach, it’s still very troubling,” Peterman said.

Imperial Metals also operates the Red Chris Mine upstream from the Stikine River watershed, which flows into the ocean near Wrangell and Petersburg.

Salmon Beyond Borders director Jill Weitz noted that Canadian mines aren’t required to post reclamation bonds in case the company goes belly up. Bankruptcy can lead to legacy mines that remain hazardous for decades.

“Mining companies have the ability to operate, and if they are filing bankruptcy or nearing bankruptcy, they have the ability to walk away from the project,” Weitz said.

That’s the case of the Tulsequah Chief mine, which was abandoned in the 1950s. It continues draining acidic water into the Tulsequah River, a Taku River tributary, which empties into an ocean near Juneau.

Following pressure from the administration of Gov. Bill Walker, B.C.’s government announced last year it would begin efforts to clean up that mine.

“It puts the liability on the people and not the industry as a whole,” Weitz said. “We don’t see justice there, we don’t think it’s fair. Especially for those communities downstream from these B.C. operations.”

Imperial Metals said in its statement the company would continue reclamation and monitoring at Mount Polley despite the shutdown, which could be temporary.