It was an embarrassingly low point in corporate public relations for Wayne Lenton. The vice-president of Amax Canada had spent one morning last week assuring a scientific review panel that wastes from the company’s huge molybdenum mine would not contaminate the waters of Alice Arm in northwestern British Columbia, when he got a phone call. On the other end of the line were officials who read him a telegram from federal Fisheries Minisiter Roméo LeBlanc urging the temporary closing of the mine,
Lenton had little choice but to go along with the telegram, which had >been prompted by the discovery of a \mysterious plume of cloudy water 50 to 575 metres beneath the surface of the "inlet. Federal environment researchers weren’t sure if the murky water was caused by mine tailings or just a heavy spring runoff from the surrounding mountains, but it was close to an outfall pipe that has been dumping 11,000 tonnes of mine waste a day into the inlet since April 30. Under the terms of the permit granted the subsidiary of the multinational Amax Inc., wastes are supposed to stay 100 metres below the surface of the water. While the mine remained shut, costing the company $350,000 a day, samples of the sediment were collected for analysis.
“We had a good laugh about that,” said Rod Robinson, vice-president of the Nishga Tribal Council in the area, referring to Lenton’s moment of red-faced confusion. The Nishgas, who have fished in Alice Arm and other northern inlets for centuries, find little else about this mine funny. They contend that the mine tailings—which include lead and highly toxic radium 226—will contaminate the crab and halibut they take from the inlet (Maclean's, March 30) and have boycotted the hearings in Prince Rupert set up at their request. What they wanted was a full public inquiry with the power to subpoena witnesses and hear testimony under oath. The Nishgas weren’t consulted on the reopening of the mine, which will dump 91 million tonnes of waste into the inlet during its 26 years of operation, a process so far in excess of federal regulations that a special cabinet order-incouncil was required.
The sediment showed up when government and company experts circled each other warily at the hearings trying to establish how much of a threat to fish and human life the tailings represent. At week’s end, Jack Littlepage, Amax’s chief environmental consultant, was suggesting the government had overreacted, shutting down the mine on scanty information. Indeed, Environment Canada did back off slightly, saying that while the plume in the water was caused by tailings, it was ecologically insignificant—but the data would have to be studied more closely.
Meanwhile, the Indians noted grimlyg that last month the outfall pipe became plugged up, depositing nine tonnes of** waste onto nearby beaches. The federal government is not about to close the mine permanently, but it could force the company to extend the outfall pipe to a depth of 100 metres. That would cost $200,000, a price Amax might be willing to pay to avoid future embarrassing incidents. To itself and to the government.
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