In Photos: The Canadian Mining Boom You’ve Never Seen Before

“If you’re in Vancouver this is way out in the middle of nowhere, but way out in the middle of nowhere is our backyard.”

Those are the words of Frederick Otilius Olsen Jr., the tribal president of a traditional Haida village on Prince of Wales Island, Alaska.

When I met him, he had travelled to Ketchikan, Alaska, to meet with officials about the risk posed by the mining boom across the border in British Columbia.

He stood on the boardwalk overlooking Ketchikan’s fishing fleet and waved his hands animatedly while he told me about how his culture — and southern Alaska’s economy — depends on salmon.

The week before, I’d spent several hours flying in a small fixed-wing plane over B.C.’s mining boom to capture never before seen images of the province’s largest and most remote mines.

Door removed, I captured hundreds of frames as we passed over the Red Chris copper and gold mine, which began operation in late 2014. Its tailings pond and dam rises impossible and angular out of a soft, sloping valley.

Set within the vast and largely intact headwaters of northwestern B.C.'s greatest wild salmon rivers, the Red Chris mine is just one of 10 mines either in operation, in development or in advanced exploration stages in this region.

It is owned and operated by Imperial Metals, the company responsible for the Mount Polley mine disaster in central B.C. If the name seems familiar, it’s because in 2014, a tailings dam at Mount Polley collapsed, resulting in one of the worst environmental disasters in Canadian history. All told, 24 million cubic metres of contaminated mining waste flooded into a lake —  a source of drinking water and salmon-spawning ground that feeds the Fraser River.

A new study from the United Nations Environment Programme notes Canada has had seven known mine tailings spills in the last decade, only one less than China, which tops the list.

“The increasing number and size of tailings dams around the globe magnifies the potential environmental, social and economic cost of catastrophic failure impact and the risks and costs of perpetual management,” says the report.

A view from the sky gives perspective on both the enormity of the mines but also their proximity to Alaskans who, living downstream, fear they may unfairly suffer the consequences of another Mount Polley style accident.

“This is our Amazon right here and they’re not making any more of it,” Olsen Jr. said.

The following photo essay was made possible by 103 readers, who donated more than $10,000 to bring this unprecedented assignment to life.

B.C. and Alaska share some of the world's most productive salmon rivers. However, the region is also home to some of the largest untapped gold and copper reserves in the world. Gold is mined primarily for use in jewelry, while copper conducts both heat and electricity well, so has many uses, including in electrical equipment such as wiring, motors and solar panels.

The Todagin Plateau on the edge of Imperial Metals’ Red Chris mine is thought to have the world’s highest density of stone sheep. It is the traditional Tahltan hunting grounds for moose, sheep, goats and caribou.

The wall of the Red Chris tailings dam is 105 metres high, about the height of a 35-storey building. Tailings are the byproducts left over from mining and include finely ground rock particles, chemicals and water. The rock particles and other chemicals sometimes undergo chemical reactions during storage that generate additional byproducts, such as acid, that can more easily leach into waterways.

 

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-  Garth Lenz