A not-for-profit group that has worked to protect public lands and resources in Ontario since 1968, including dissuading development in Algonquin Provincial Park, has filed a private lawsuit against De Beers alleging that the company failed to fully report levels of mercury and methlymercury at its open pit Victor diamond mine in northern Ontario.
The Wildlands League — a chapter of the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society (CPAWS) — League alleges the diamond miner failed to report on mercury levels from five out of nine surface-water monitoring stations for the creeks next to its open-pit mine between 2009 and 2016, violating a condition of its Certificate of Approval.
The Victor mine, 90 km west of the coastal community of the Attawapiskat First Nation, does not directly deposit methylmercury into nearby creeks, the environmental group said in a statement. Instead, its activities “trigger impacts on the environment by stimulating the conversion of mercury already present in the ecosystem into methylmercury.” Methylmercury is a poisonous form of mercury that can harm fish and humans.
The environmental group says it alerted the mining company and the provincial government about the failures more than 18 months ago and outlined their concerns in a report released in December 2015 called: “Nothing to see here: Failures of self-monitoring and reporting at the De Beers Victor diamond mine in Canada.”
“We need to know that the monitoring and reporting program has integrity, because all these permits are being approved and the government is saying: ‘Don’t worry, there’s going to be self-monitoring,’” Anna Baggio, director of conservation planning at the Wildlands League, says in an interview. “In this case, we found self-monitoring wasn’t working properly as it should, and there was this failure over many years, and we felt we had no choice but to take this action.”
Baggio notes that a condition of De Beers’ environmental permit for the Victor mine was that it self-monitor levels of mercury and methylmercury from all nine stations in the creeks and alleges it violated that condition. “For seven years they weren’t meeting the legal requirements,” she says. “They didn’t meet them and the Ontario government didn’t seem to know this was going on. When you fail to meet a condition of a permit, it’s actually an offence under the Water Permit Act. Someone has to hold the company to account. So that’s why we took this step.”
In an email, Lindsay Davidson, a spokeswoman for Ontario’s Ministry of the Environment and Climate Change, said the government has “strict, comprehensive rules in place to protect the environment,” including requirements under the Ontario Water Resources Act, Environmental Protection Act and other environmental laws. These requirements, she added, “have been consistently strengthened over the years, and we expect them to be followed fully.
“The concerns raised are being taken seriously, and the Ministry will carefully review the details of the proposed legal action,” she continued. “However, it’s important to note that the Ministry has previously provided direction to De Beers Canada regarding their monitoring and reporting requirements for operating the Victor diamond mine. As a result, improvements were made to the 2016 reporting process. Following up in that direction, there have been meetings between Ministry staff and De Beers, as well as follow up in writing to ensure the company follows all of the conditions of their permits and approvals.”
Tom Ormsby, head of external and corporate affairs for De Beers Canada, declined a request to speak with The Northern Miner about the lawsuit, explaining in an email that it is now a legal matter, so the company could not comment on the specifics of the allegations. Instead, he sent a media statement that was not posted on the company’s website.
The nine-paragraph statement said the company was “still trying to determine the exact nature of the allegations being made regarding the annual environmental reporting,” but that “to suggest that we have not been reporting in the appropriate manner for seven years is inaccurate.”
The company also noted that its program now has 200 groundwater wells and 15 surface water wells, from which it collects 3,200 samples a year. It expanded its surface monitoring stations to 17 once the mine went into operations, which nearly doubled the surface monitoring data collected by the mine.
It also said that the mercury in the James Bay Lowlands near the mine occurred naturally in the environment long before building the mine and that mercury is not used in the mining process.
“We have been transparent with our data and reporting and, in fact, we have had regular engagement with CPAWS Wildlands League over the years, including providing CPAWS Wildlands League with our complete monitoring data earlier this year,” the statement read. “In light of this we are both confused and extremely disappointed in the actions of CPAWS Wildlands League, especially where we have been open and transparent with them throughout our extensive engagement with them.”
In its report in 2015, the Wildlands League said De Beers, back in 2007, “itself predicted that operations at its Victor mine … might increase levels of toxic methylmercury in the downstream river by up to 1,100%.
“We obtained that disturbing information only through a freedom of information request, submitted by our colleagues at Ecojustice,” the report’s authors stated, referring to the group’s lawyers. “It wasn’t discussed in the federal environmental assessment, during public consultation for the mine’s environmental permits, nor anywhere else on the public record. Yet it appears to have been accepted by Ontario’s Environment Ministry at the time of the permitting.”
The report’s authors noted that their findings of “substantial reporting failures” were shared with both the company and the ministry.
“The company has selectively acknowledged and fixed several of them,” the report stated. “But many remain unresolved, with the most recent monitoring report perpetuating them, and introducing further reporting discrepancies.”
When asked whether De Beers had put out a formal statement about the Wildlands League’s December 2015 report, Ormsby said the company had not made a formal statement about it last year because it hadn’t seen the report when it was released. “We’re still working through the details,” he said via email.
Victor, which started commercial production in 2008, is a fly-in/fly-out mine in the James Bay Lowlands of northern Ontario. It is the province’s first diamond mine.