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Posted 2019/12/28

Sherridon Orphan Mine Reclamation - Part 2


By Gillian Ward

As previously reported here one of Canada’s orphaned mines continues to impact the environment almost seventy years after its closure, bleeding into the world class fishing lake immediately downstream.

Ranked by the National Orphaned and Abandoned Mines Initiative (NOAMI) as a Class A high risk site, Sherridon, Manitoba’s former copper/zinc mine reclamation project began in 2009 when tailings were transferred from the surface of the ground and placed into a small lake adjacent the public school. As part of the reclamation process, dry quicklime placed on the surface of a frozen Camp Lake blew off the ice in three annual incidents, contaminating the school.

Camp Lake
Camp Lake is seen on the right, photo supplied by Debi Hatch, 2017
(Photo previously published in “Province began rehabilitating Sherridon's polluted lake in 2009, now wants to connect it to clean lake”. CBC News · Posted: Aug 07, 2017 5:00 AM CT | Last Updated: August 7, 2017)

Iron floc, the flakes of rust produced as the mine tailings react with water, accelerated by the addition of quicklime (Cao) flows steadily into Kississing Lake, around which the community is settled. A silt curtain was to have prevented the suspended orange material from passing over the community weir into the once clear waters of the area’s most popular sport fishing destination, where tourists and locals alike are now finding their boats rusting, stained orange by the unnatural water.

The back story on the Sherritt Gordon copper/zinc mine was relayed by local resident, Sherridon councillor and public health nurse, Debi Hatch,

“The mine tailings lake (Camp Lake) was very acidic, that was washing into Kississing Lake, that is where the community is built, all around it. Camp Lake had been, since 1952, leaching into Kississing Lake, where we used to get our water from. The water got so bad with all these heavy metals leaching in...so that’s why they came up with the idea to move the water treatment plant to the other side of the community which is a mile away, and they built us this new water treatment plant that never worked right from the beginning”.

“So they took all the mine tailings that were laying on the ground adjacent to Camp Lake, which had been oxidizing for over fifty years, a really nasty, really orange, coppery-red colour, and the plan was to mix that with lime and put it into Camp Lake and then flood Camp Lake until all the mine tailings were covered. “

Ms. Hatch went on, “So they took all the mine tailings and mixed it with lime dust which was supposed to neutralize all the metals and bring the pH up. So, there was no water going into Camp Lake anymore, and it wasn’t going over the north end into Kississing and wasn’t contaminating anything. So this lake was supposed to stabilize with all this lime kiln dust put in it, but because of the mine tailings lying on the earth for so long, getting exposed to air, they oxidized quite a bit, and they were still generating acid once they were placed underwater which is what it was not supposed to do, because that’s a common practise to put fresh mine tailings underwater so it doesn’t oxidize and generate acid. These were not fresh mine tailings.”

“Now they needed fresh water coming in to neutralize the pH, so they opened the diversion dam by the south end of the school and let some fresh water come back in there (to Camp Lake). They were hoping it would bring up the pH, which it did, for a while, but because there is only 1.5 m of water on top of the tailings in Camp Lake, every time we get a north wind, it disturbs the bottom and brings all that iron floc into suspension and the lake just turns an orange colour, as you can see from the pictures, and that happens every time the wind blows, the iron floc is carried over the weir into Kississing.”

Camp Lake discharge
Camp Lake discharge into Kississing Lake, August 2019
Photo supplied by Wendy Vacheresse, Sherridon Community Council

WaterToday drilled into the matter to find out how the community of Sherridon is coping with the discharge into Kississing Lake.

We reached Sherridon Mayor Dennis Hatch by phone, “This project was supposed to take a total of two years. In two years from the time they started we were supposed to be able to drink the water, eat the fish and swim in Camp Lake. It’s been ten years now and the water is orange. Even more orange than it was ten years ago. You’ve seen the pictures.”

The parameters for water quality established for downstream environmental protection for this project were to have determined when water from the tailings lake (Camp Lake) could be safely discharged downstream. Reclamation project management set out the water quality measurements for pH, iron, turbidity and a number of other parameters to define the green light (safe discharge) conditions, amber light (caution and closer monitoring) conditions and red light (stop discharge) conditions.

Debi Hatch has been diligently tracking the water quality reports provided by the reclamation team. When measured quantities of iron indicated “stop discharge”, a new version of the green light/red light parameters suddenly appeared.

WaterToday obtained electronic copies of two nearly identical, undated and unsigned documents allegedly presented to the community by project managers to define the terms for safe discharge. One of the copies bears a handwritten notation as the initial discharge terms, and a second version, with increased thresholds for turbidity (suspended particulate matter) and iron, is denoted as a later version.

An email thread between the project team and the community confirms that changes were made to the safe discharge terms, arguably based on sound scientific evidence. When August 21, 2019 water test reports from Bureau Veritas showed levels in excess of even the second version, more generous red-light thresholds, the community expected that stop logs would be ordered into place, yet the tailings lake continues to bleed downstream.

An October 3, 2019 email from an exasperated Sherridon council to the Manitoba project team asks for answers, “Can you please provide the scientific background information (publications & references) behind the statement that it has been "scientifically" shown that iron content can be increased above the previous set parameters without adverse effects to Kississing Lake.”

Only after a prod email on October 8, did an answer come back from Manitoba Reclamation Project management on October 21, as follows:
    “The water quality management approach being applied to the protection of Kississing Lake is to manage the discharge such that water quality in Kississing Lake, outside the mixing zone, is not adversely affected.

    Kississing Lake water quality is monitored as part of the overall environmental monitoring program. The monitoring program has determined that water quality in Kississing Lake, outside the mixing zone, has not been changed by the Camp Lake discharge. This conclusion has been confirmed by Manitoba Sustainable Development (community conference call, 09-18-19).”

    According to project management, water quality in the large body of Kississing Lake outside of the mixing zone, has not changed, at least not yet.

As for the community’s concerns about the environmental impact on fish, specifically, in a letter addressed to Sherridon Community Council, the Reclamation Project Manager under the Province of Manitoba states “the federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) reviewed and accepted the plan and determined that it will not cause serious harm to fish. No approvals required.

WaterToday went directly to DFO for the environmental assessment carried out for the reclamation project, the report access is pending under federal ATIP (Access to Information) program. In the meantime, we received the following emailed statement from an authorized staff member in DFO Communications:
    “DFO reviewed a portion of the mine reclamation plan related to restoring flow into Camp Lake and to reduce flows through Lower Sherlett Creek (the diversion channel that was constructed to divert water around Camp Lake during operation of the mine). The plan included maintaining flows in the diversion channel to support spring spawning. Based on discussions with the proponent and reports submitted, DFO concluded that fish access, use and habitat functionality of Lower Sherlett Creek would continue to provide spawning and rearing habitat for Cold Lake (Kississing Lake) fish species, under average conditions.”

While it is noteworthy that the re-routing of Sherlett Creek back through Camp Lake is not deemed to cause problems for fish spawning in the clean water diversion channel, this statement does not answer the question about the safety of fish and fish habitat downstream of the ongoing discharge.

Bureau Veritas lab reports show iron concentrations at the discharge point have tripled from 2017 to 2019. Many are wondering, at what point will this flow of iron effluent, at what concentration will the iron eventually cause problems for aquatic life and habitat, and for the people, birds and animals that consume fish from this lake?

As the iron level has increased since the liming of the tailings lake, the Mayor feels that at some point in the future, this ugly water may have a negative impact on fish.

WaterToday heard from Mayor Hatch that it’s the kids that fish most from shore, while local adult with means and tourists venture miles further out in the lake for fishing.

As for who might be most at risk from eating fish from the immediate discharge area, the Mayor declares, “I cannot say (that the kids are eating the fish they catch), but I don’t doubt it.”

“(Project people) were here and did some tests. I’m going to tell you honestly, I was with them, we set nets and we caught fish below that weir, we got trout, we got walleye we got northern”, says Mayor Hatch. The fish had not been known to show up so close to the tailings lake, but since the reclamation started, the water quality did seem to get better, for a while. Now that iron levels are on the rise, the future of the downstream lake is in question.

It is the government of Manitoba that would have to order the stoppage of flow.

“We have been in contact with them, we had a phone conference here in September to try to get this stopped. Water stewardship with the government, everybody says well its just an aesthetic thing, no big deal. It really isn’t a health hazard right now, its not at that limit,” says Debi Hatch.

As for the tourism industry around Sherridon, losses are expected.

“Kississing Lake is a well known fishing lake, we have a lot of fishing tours up here and actually the community council has gotten a letter from a tourist from Iowa concerned about his boat being red, and what’s happening to the fishing industry?”, she says.

“It may not be at a critical level now where all the fish are dying off or moving out of the area, but if this continues, it could do that. The community council spent thousands of dollars upgrading their campground this spring to draw more tourists and you know what’s going to happen when the people start seeing the bay is all red, and they are pulling their boats out, do you think these people are going to be wanting to catch fish here?”

Mayor Hatch confirms, the boats in Kississing Lake came out of the water stained orange since the discharge started this fall. “That is from the iron floc, well, whatever is going into the water, I don’t know exactly what it is, because I am far from a scientist...but the bottom of the boats are turning orange from the water coming from Camp Lake into Kississing.”

“How can you convince people that the orange water coming over the weir is okay? It’s aesthetics, no doubt, but how do you convince people that it’s not harmful, and not bothering the lake?”, queries the Mayor.

Camp Lake discharge
Orange stain from Kississing Lake, Fall 2019
Photo supplied by Wendy Vacheresse

“I don’t know what to say one way or the other, but in my mind, it's not going to get better. I know it's not good, it can’t be good, maybe for the first while, but it's going to get worse and worse until there is a difference in (Kississing) Lake” concludes Mayor Hatch.

Chris and Sheryl Matheson operate Kenanow Lodge, a tourism business in the area. One of the locations was shut down as a result of the liming of Camp Lake. As the lodge still has quicklime residue, it has not been cleared by the public health inspector to reopen, neither will the Province of Manitoba’s insurer cover any further clean up.

WaterToday asked the Mayor, what the community council feels should be done in the near term.

“I think close that weir, and putting in that coffer dam, but that’s going to do damage to Camp Lake, they will have to start all over again with the liming of Camp Lake. I think that’s why they are doing what they are doing.”

Discharge then, is the lesser of two evils? Mayor Hatch agrees, “Yes. We are stuck between a rock and a hard place. I can’t just be negative, there are two sides to every story. This plan did work for a while.”

“Two negative options – keep the water flowing, keep Camp Lake at safe pH, or allow Camp Lake to become acid again. Then they would have to start the liming of Camp Lake all over again”, says Ms. Hatch.

“We have been writing letters, we wrote a letter to (Manitoba Premier, Brian) Pallister, and others, “claims the Mayor.

WaterToday received an electronic copy of the letter dated October 7, 2019 to Manitoba Premier. According to Sherridon CAO, Wendy Vacheresse, the town of Sherridon finally received a response December 18, 2019, from the Deputy Minister, Manitoba Conservation and Climate, reinforcing what has already been stated by the Province.

A spokesperson for Sustainable Development provided the following statement by email, defending the decision to move tailings into the lake:
    “Deposition of sulphide-containing mine tailings under water cover is a well-established best management practice for preventing acid generation from this type of mine tailings. Earthen covers are not typically used in underwater tailings deposition because the water cover alone provides an effective barrier between the tailings and the atmosphere above the lake. The atmosphere is the source of oxygen that, together with bacteria, converts the sulphides in the tailings to the sulphuric acid that is the primary cause of water quality degradation from sulphide tailings.”

    “The specific suitability of underwater disposal for management of the Sherridon tailings is best demonstrated by the tailings that were placed in Fox Lake, located adjacent to the Sherridon mine site, during Sherridon mine operations. The tailings were placed in the lake and no earthen barrier cover was applied, such that the surface of the tailings remained in direct contact with the overlying water. The tailings in Fox Lake are from the same mine as the tailings that have been placed in Camp Lake, providing a clear example of the site-specific effectiveness of the underwater disposal approach chosen for the Sherridon reclamation project. Water quality in Fox Lake is as good or better than in Kississing Lake and there is no issue with iron floc suspension in Fox Lake. “
According to Mayor Hatch, the Fox Lake example is considerably different from Camp Lake. The Mayor and his brother hunted and fished around Fox Lake when they were kids in the 60’s and 70’s, and they say that the tailings were already underwater at that time, perhaps that is why there has not been such a problem at Fox Lake.

Manitoba Conservation and Climate statement goes on to state:
    “Efforts have been hampered at Camp Lake because mine waste and tailings from the ongoing reclamation project remain on the shore adjacent to Camp Lake. The effect of runoff from the remaining mine waste on the shore of Camp Lake is most obvious in summer and autumn, whereas in winter, when ice cover isolates the lake from these adjacent sources, the quality of water leaving Camp Lake is similar to water quality in Sherlett Creek as it enters Camp Lake – the underwater tailings have a negligible effect on water quality under ice cover.

    It should be noted that the discolouration of the water is a result of runoff coming in contact with remaining mine waste adjacent to the lake, not the tailings in the lake. Progressive removal of the remaining mine waste, which still is not complete, has since reduced the effect of runoff from the remaining waste materials such that lake liming is no longer necessary for water quality management.”

    According to Caius Priscu of AMEC Earth and Environmental, contracted to a screening-level project to inspect Crown-owned abandoned mine sites in Manitoba, there are upward of 140 such sites to be reclaimed in the province, at a tremendous cost to the public purse. The matter is complex and astronomical in scope and scale. Sherridon is considered in the top five high risk sites. As such, it raised questions from many quarteres as to the validity of the reclamation process to protect fish and fish habitat.

    In her April 2013 audit report, Environment Commissioner Julie Gelfand, raises serious questions about the lack of monitoring and enforcement of mines releasing effluent into fish habitats in Canada.

    Ugo Lapointe, the Canada Program Coordinator for MiningWatch held a press conference responding to the Environment Commissioner’s audit report on April 2, 2019, stating:
    “current regulated limits are too high, 20-100 times higher than what they should be, to protect fish.” Ugo Lapointe, Mining Watch

    Meanwhile, a 2017 Environment Canada report states that:
    - 76% of the active mines discharging effluent are showing effects on fish, with mine pollutants cited as probable cause.
    - 35% of the 138 metal mines operating in Canada are out of compliance, not reporting data on effluent release.

      “Too few and too sparse inspections, lack of enforcement measures to protect fish and a complete lack of transparency around the revealing of mine pollution data”. - Ugo Lapointe, MiningWatch

    These trends indicated by the 2019 Environment Commissioner’s audit do not bode well for the protection of fish and fish habitats downstream of mines. The lack of transparency makes it especially difficult for the public and the local communities to truly understand the impact on their lands and waterways.

    Mayor Hatch certainly has expressed his frustration with the process, concluding, “What I would like is this whole project resolved, over and done, like they promised. Come up with the proper answers, bring it to a close, the way they said it was going to be, that we can swim, we can drink the water and eat the fish out of Camp Lake.”

    WaterToday will continue to track developments around this active reclamation project, providing updates as the water flows.


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