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B.C. gold company fined $276,000 for environmental failures

Barkerville Gold was given 30 days to pay an administrative penalty of $276,360, down from an original $1.4 million.
In foreground is the proposed Cariboo Gold mine site in Wells.

A mining company operating outside the historic gold rush town of Barkerville, B.C., has been handed a more than $276,000 penalty for dumping underground waste into a nearby river. 

The penalty, which originally topped $1.4 million but was later reduced due to regulatory limits and the extraordinary circumstances brought on by a global pandemic, was handed to Barkerville Gold Mines Ltd. on March 4.

The company owns two gold mines and one processing mill in B.C.’s Cariboo region. At its Bonanza Creek Ledge Mine on Barkerville Mountain, the company was found to have exceeded provincial limits on the release of heavy metals and other toxins 417 times between 2020 and 2021. 

The company, which is owned by Osisko Development Corp., failed to meet provincial discharge limits when it dumped wastewater into the nearby Lowhee Creek. The effluent was found to contain high levels of arsenic, cadmium, cobalt, copper, iron, nickel, nitrite, nitrate, sulphate, zinc and total suspended solids.

“Elevated concentrations of these contaminants of concern may result in real adverse effects to aquatic life,” wrote director of the Environmental Management Act Jason Bourgeois in his decision. 

“The frequency of these exceedances was such that the exposure was considered chronic or long term.”

On April 17, 2023, the Ministry of Environment and Climate Change Strategy issued the company notices that failure to comply with provincial environmental regulations warranted a combined $760,000 penalty. The mining company respond with 10,723 pages of documents. 

In coming to his decision, Bourgeois considered the impacts the COVID-19 pandemic had on the company’s ability to commission a water treatment plant. Of the 68 dates the mining company was out of compliance, 54 were during a provincial state of emergency. 

Pollutants could risk health of aquatic life

On 14 separate days after the state of emergency ended, the mining company was found out of compliance. Between July 6 and Nov. 29, 2021, nitrite concentrations exceeded provincial limits by as high as 314 per cent.

Exposure to nitrite has been shown to negatively impact fish and shellfish, including their growth, moulting, blood oxygen-carrying capacity, and ability to reproduce. 

Nitrate residue, meanwhile, often leaches from residue produced by rock blasting into surface or river water. Once in the water, it has been linked with increased mortality, reduced feeding, physical deformities and a drop in successful reproduction, among other effects. 

The original notice described the failures as “major,” something Barkerville Gold disputed as 283 of the discharges exceeded permit limits by more than 50 per cent, not the 75 per cent it said constitutes a “major” contravention, according to the decision.

In his decision, Bourgeois downgraded the severity of the failures from major to having a “moderate potential to result in a significant adverse effect on the environment in Lowhee Creek.”

Penalty reduced by more than $1 million

The initial notice to the company proposed an increase of $1,375,000 for the economic benefit derived from failures to install a nitrate treatment system and operate it for two years, as well as delaying the installation of a water treatment plant. In his decision, Bourgeois reduced the economic benefit the company gained to more than $672,000.

Barkerville Gold asked the province to reduce the penalty due to the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic — an event it said impacted staff, led to supply chain disruptions and prevented contractors from building the water treatment plant. 

Bourgeois agreed, dropping 54 days of non-compliance from the final penalty, and reducing the economic benefit the company derived from the contravention to $9,740 from $1.375 million. 

Company spokesperson Jill Wilson said it would pay the $276,360 administrative penalty.

“Since Osisko Development Corp.’s (ODV) acquisition of BGM in 2020, it has taken active steps to address these non-compliances,” said Wilson in an email. 

She said the company has put $2 million toward the commissioning of a “state-of-the-art water treatment facility” and improved management practices, environmental monitoring and reporting systems at the Bonanza Ledge mine. 

“We remain in constant communication with Lhtako Dene Nation, Williams Lake First Nation, Xatśūll First Nation, the District of Wells, the Province of British Columbia and other parties as this work continues,” Wilson added.

Editor's note: this story has been updated from its original version to include a statement from Osisko Development Corp.