What Price Fish Habitat in Development of Sisson Mine

 By Nathan Wilbur, ASF Director of New Brunswick Programs

The next step in the proposed Sisson Mine project is upon us.

The planned Tungsten/Molybdenum open pit mine is located in the headwaters of the Nashwaak River. Its massive tailings pond, required for storage of the acid-generating rock waste, will be 3+ km long by 2.5+ km wide and higher than Mactaquac dam.

The tailings pond for Sisson Mine is massive, and large enough to show clearly from space. How will it hold up to 50 or 100 years of storms?

The project has undergone both provincial EIA and federal EA evaluations and been given permission if several conditions are met.

One of these conditions was the proponent providing a Financial Securities Plan (FSP) within six months of the EIA to New Brunswick’s Department of Environment and Local Government.

Not surprisingly, the proponent failed to meet this requirement, making it impossible for government, stakeholders, First Nations and the public to assess whether the company has the financial resources in place to ensure appropriate environmental bonding.

A large Atlantic salmon returning to the Nashwaak River. Many have raised concerns about the impacts of the mine on the river. Photo Nathan Wilbur/ASF

Because the mine WILL destroy fish habitat, the proponent legally needs to compensate for that loss with a “Fisheries Productivity Offsetting Plan”, required by Environment and Climate Change Canada (ECCC) and Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO).  In order to proceed, the streams the mine will impact need to be classified within the Metal Mining Effluent Regulations. But for that to happen, ECCC and DFO first require the proponent to demonstrate a rigorous assessment of alternatives for the tailings storage, and offer up an adequate compensation plan.

To come up with a compensation plan, the mine folks and government first needed to know how much habitat will be impacted. The process began several years ago with a habitat impact assessment, which turned out to encompass a limited area, principally the footprint of the mine and tailings pond, and some short distance beyond.

What it does not encompass are the downstream impacts and threats to fish and aquatic habitat resulting from mine operations; release of treated effluent; and seepage of untreated effluent through the unlined tailings pond berm. Although we care about the direct loss of Atlantic salmon habitat in these small headwater streams, our primary concern is the threat to the entire downstream Nashwaak River, Saint John River and even the Bay of Fundy.

ASF's Nathan Wilbur addresses the panel on the shortcomings of the proposed compensation for lost fish habitat. Photo Gary Moore/CBC

The assessment does not incorporate risks of downstream impacts and, therefore, it significantly underestimates the impacts the mine will have.

On Thursday evening, March 25, ECCC and DFO held a public consultation session in Stanley, NB to present the numbers for habitat loss, the accompanying compensation plan, as well as the assessment of alternatives for tailings storage.

The meeting attracted a full hall, with about 280 people of diverse backgrounds – the blue collared, white collared, the old and the young, rural and city dwellers, NGOs, students, and Maliseet indigenous people.

There was not a whisper of support for the mine.

The take-home message was that jobs would be welcomed in the region, but not at the expense of the river, which people expect will be impacted.

The proposed compensation plan is to remove an old flow control structure at the outlet of Nashwaak Lake and replace it with a small bridge so that alewives and other fish species can gain access to the lake and its tributaries. This will open access to a habitat area that is more than 5 times larger than the assessed fish habitat area damaged by the mine (i.e., the footprint of the mine and slightly beyond).

The proponent's proposed compensation was to improve this passage for alewives - that no one knows whether or not it is actually an impediment to them.

When DFO noted at the public meeting that this would cost the proponent a grand total of $185,000, laughter and ridicule generated immediately from the crowd. There is no question, an improved alewife run would benefit the Nashwaak River, including its Atlantic salmon, by bringing in valuable marine-derived nutrients. However, it severely undercompensates for the damage this mine will cause to the river. The flow control structure may not even be a barrier to fish passage, the proponent has no study to demonstrate this. Even if it is a barrier, in my informed opinion, fixing passage at this site is something a group like the Nashwaak Watershed Association could accomplish in an afternoon with $5,000.

Given the limited assessment of habitat impact, and the resulting inadequate compensation proposal, ASF’s recommendation to ECCC and DFO at the consultation meeting was to deny the permit and send the proponent back to the drawing board. It would be an embarrassment to the federal government regulators to accept such an insufficient compensation plan for a mine of this magnitude in the headwaters of a salmon river facing an Endangered listing.