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Incomplete reporting still reveals mining companies' toxic threat

New data released Friday in response to a lawsuit won last year by Ecojustice, on behalf of Great Lakes United and MiningWatch Canada, is beginning to shine a light on the toxic legacy of Canada's mining and tar sands industries. 

Unfortunately, despite a lawsuit and a government order to report pollutant releases, some facilities have failed to comply.

"The public is finally starting to get a picture of the extent of the toxic burden created by Canada's mines, but even now - after an order by a federal court judge and the Minister of the Environment - some mines have failed to report," said Justin Duncan, staff lawyer for Ecojustice, and who represented Great Lakes United and MiningWatch Canada in the case.

"Right now we know that at least 500,000 tonnes of toxic substances are being stored in tailings ponds and waste rock piles across the country. But until the rest of the facilities report, we won't have a full picture."

Data released late last week to Canada's National Pollutant Release Inventory (NPRI) reveals for the first time some of the pollutants released by mines to their tailings and waste rock dumps between 2006 and 2009.

Even with several metal mines and coal mines not reporting as Environment Canada expected, available data clearly indicates mine waste often contains massive amounts of heavy metals such as lead, arsenic and other pollutants like sulfuric acid, which pose major threats to the environment and human health.     

"The public has a right to know what toxics are being stored near their communities and watersheds, especially as evidence continues to grow that tailings dumps leak," said John Jackson of Great Lakes United.

"Even as these wastes build up year after year, there are mines that still haven't provided a picture of the risk they pose. Environment Canada must fully enforce the law against those mines that fail to report."

According to the data from Environment Canada, 58 of Canada's 86 metal mines reported to the NPRI, as did 1 of 22 coal mines. While all are not required to report, Environment Canada stated that some expected mines did not provide data. The department said it will follow up with non-reporting and probable under-reporting facilities, and refer them to the enforcement branch as necessary.

In total, reporting facilities reported disposing of more than 500,000 tonnes of toxic waste in tailings ponds and waste rock piles. This includes substances like lead, arsenic, sulfuric acid and other cancer-causing substances.

The numbers further highlight the need for better regulation and long-term waste management practices in the mining industry, including treatment of mine wastes during the decades after mine closure.

"Industry has to do a better job locating and constructing waste facilities, monitoring them and guaranteeing that they have the financial assurances in place for mine cleanup," said Jamie Kneen of MiningWatch. "But first, we need the government to ensure that all facilities fully report their pollutant releases as the Court ordered them to do."

In 2009 Federal Court Justice James Russell ruled that the federal government must end its illegal exclusion of mine tailings and waste rock pollution from the NPRI - Canada's legislated, publicly-accessible inventory of pollutant releases to air, water and land.

This article is a press release from EcoJustice.