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Former B.C. mining exec fined $30K for environmental violations — but First Nation says damage costs far more

The former executive of a now-bankrupt mining company has been fined nearly $30,000 for environmental violations dating back to 2015 — an amount that has led to competing appeals from both sides.

Yellow Giant mine released excess waste water into wetland and waterways on Gitxaała territory in 2015

An overhead view of a mine with a pool of water and associated equipment.

The former executive of a now-bankrupt mining company has been fined nearly $30,000 for environmental violations dating back to 2015 — an amount that has led to competing appeals from both sides.

The charges follow a July 7 ruling from B.C. provincial court judge David Patterson, who said Benjamin Mossman was "actively or passively involved" in releasing excess zinc and other substances into woods and wetlands on Banks Island in Gitxaała First Nation territory.

He was fined $29,994, according to the B.C. Conservation Officer Service, which led the joint investigation into the allegations in the initial stages.

Mossman was acquitted on another 10 charges relating to the same mine, which closed in 2015, less than eight months after opening.

Chilwin Cheng, legal counsel for Mossman, says he is disappointed in the court's decision and that his client is appealing the fine.

"We argued for a lower [fine] … we're looking forward to seeing the results after the appeal."

The B.C. Prosecution Service says Crown Counsel is appealing the acquittals for the other charges pressed against Mossman, which include failing to report environmental spills and dumping, discharging mine waste into the environment, and unauthorized work near a stream.

Both appeals are scheduled for January 2025.

Mine opened despite Gitxaała opposition

The Yellow Giant Mine opened on Lax k'naga dzol, also known as Banks Island, in 2015 despite opposition from the Gitxaała Nation.

The island is at the heart of Gitxaała territory and is important salmon habitat.

According to North Coast NDP MLA Jennifer Rice, a former employee tipped off the Ministry of Energy and Mines to problems at the mine and, on July 9, 2015, the province, Environment Canada and the Conservation Officer Service inspected the site.

The next day, the provincial environment ministry issued a pollution abatement order, saying the company had released tailings and effluent into a creek, a lake and a pond, as well as forest and wetland, on Banks Island.

On July 15, 2015, the Ministry of Energy and Mines ordered operations of the Yellow Giant Mine to cease and desist until they were in compliance, and in January 2016, Banks Island Gold filed for bankruptcy.

In August 2016, following the advice of the Conservation Officer Service, charges were laid against Mossman and a second accused alleging multiple violations of the province's Environmental Management Act, including failure to report a spill of a polluting substance and repeatedly failing to comply with environmental permits.

In July this year, Mossman was found guilty of 13 environmental violations while the co-accused was found not guilty on all counts.

Pollution 'devastated' land: Chief councillor

In a statement, Gitxaała Chief Councillor Linda Innes told CBC News that Mossman "is certainly accountable for the horrendous examples of what happens when bad mines are allowed to operate without clear oversight."

But she said the fines imposed "amount to nothing but small fractions of the costs of correcting the devastation left behind."

"The pollution left behind devastated Banks Island's salmon-rich creeks and near-shore areas and continues to this day," Innes said.

She said provincial estimates say cleanup could cost $2.2 million.

MiningWatch Canada national program co-lead, Jamie Kneen, also called the the amount of the fines "disappointing."

"I think it's pretty clearly not an effective deterrent," he told CBC News, adding that Mossman was hired as CEO in 2016 by U.S. mining company Rise Gold despite the charges.

Gitxaała challenging B.C.'s mining regime

The environmental fallout from the Yellow Giant Mine is one of the reasons the nation took a legal challenge to the province's Mineral Tenures Act to B.C. Supreme Court in 2021, arguing the system ignores Indigenous consultation by automatically granting mineral rights in Indigenous territory.

Earlier this year, the B.C. Supreme Court agreed with the nation that the province's mining permit system is not in compliance with the government's duty to consult Indigenous groups and that the process has adverse impacts on First Nations.

Kneen says while the Gitxaała's victory is being celebrated, there is still work to be done in the mining industry.

"[The Yellow Giant Mine incident] is another illustration of the range of elements that need to be fixed … also making sure that the contingency plans and preparation and capacity are there to make sure that these accidents can't happen," he told CBC News.

"I think we're seeing progress, but the progress is so slow so it's really frustrating."

In her statement, Innes said it is critical the province "get a handle on all bad mining practices, from the granting of mineral rights through to the damage the Nation is still dealing with on Lax k'naga dzol [island]."

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Kate Partridge is an Associate Producer and Reporter in Prince George on the unceded territory of the Lheidli T'enneh. You can contact her at kate.partridge@cbc.ca.

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