New research shows how mines harm salmon populations

If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together. We need to go far, fast.

I’ve been encountering that sentiment, on climate change, for about as long as I’ve been paying attention to the issue. Looking back, I’m surprised it wasn’t a phrase that frustrated me more. It perfectly conveys the need for reckless urgency in the face of this growing crisis, and yet the same communities that adored phrases like that also tended to think I was being alarmist for suggesting that people get in the habit of storing food. For my entire life, people have been talking about what a big crisis this is, but so many of them seem to think that going far, fast means everybody acting as if they’re alone. I hope by now it’s clear to all of you that we can’t change the world through individual people choosing to buy better products or to live sustainably on the periphery of an unsustainable society. There’s simply too much to do.

This is probably going to end up being one of those topics that I talk about more as time goes on. It’s encouraging to know that there are bacteria that can eat plastic and things like that, but the sheer volume of toxic material that we’ve pumped into this world is reaching a crisis point even without the rising temperature. All the conservation and renewable energy in the world won’t save us if we cause a mass extinction anyway by poisoning the world.

We need to go far, fast, and in this case that includes a massive, global cleanup of mining sites, and a revolution in how we go about the process of resources extraction.

A new paper published in Science Advances synthesizes the impact of metal and coal mines on salmon and trout in northwestern North America, and highlights the need for more complete and transparent science to inform mining policy.

It is the first comprehensive effort by an interdisciplinary group of experts that explicitly links mining policy to current understanding of watershed ecology and salmonid biology.

“Our paper is not for or against mining, but it does describe current environmental challenges and gaps in the application of science to mining governance. We believe it will provide critically needed scientific clarity for this controversial topic,” said lead author Chris Sergeant, a graduate student at the University of Alaska Fairbanks College of Fisheries and Ocean Sciences and a research scientist at the University of Montana.

For the study, experts integrated and reviewed information on hydrology, river ecology, aquatic toxicology, biology and mining policy. Their robust assessment maps more than 3,600 mines throughout Montana, Washington, British Columbia, the Yukon and Alaska. The size of the mines ranges from family-run placer sites to massive open-pit projects.

The study shows that, despite impact assessments intended to evaluate risk and inform mitigation, mines continue to harm salmonid-bearing watersheds through contaminants, stream channel burial and streamflow alteration. Silt suffocates eggs, and embryos may not survive contaminated groundwater. Heavy metals compromise a salmon’s sense of smell, which affects their ability to react to predators and find their way back from the ocean to spawn.

“Not all mines pose the same level of risk, but our review revealed that harm from mining can be severe and long-lasting. The extent of mining pressures on these watersheds underscores the importance of accurately assessing risk to water, fish and communities,” said Sergeant.

The paper also describes how some mining policies do not account for the breadth and length of mining impacts on the environment, or the increasing effects of climate change.

“The crux of the issue is that salmon use so much of the watershed during their life cycle. They move throughout watersheds, whereas the impact assessments of mining projects tend to be very locally focused, and they don’t sufficiently consider all of the compounding and downstream effects of mining,” said salmon biologist and CFOS faculty member Megan McPhee.

She explained that some impact assessments don’t fully assess the infrastructure required to operate a mine, such as roads, electricity generation and water removal.

“Another thing is that most mines, after closure, have to be mitigated in perpetuity. That’s a problem because most corporations aren’t structured that way. Also, most mitigation strategies don’t take into account environmental change, including permafrost melting, and climate change-induced flooding,” said McPhee.

If you haven’t studied the ecological role played by salmon and other anadromous fish, you might not appreciate how much they matter. Entire forest ecosystems are shaped around this near-miraculous delivery of an abundance of high-quality food from the ocean. These fish spend their lives eating and growing at sea, and then they carry all those nutrients back up the river, where they lay a mind-boggling amount of eggs, and in the case of salmon, die. It is not an exaggeration to say that without these fish, a number of ecosystems around the world would look radically different.

And in case it needs saying, the problem of mine waste is not limited to this study’s geographic region.

Going far, fast is reckless. There’s no way around that. Honestly, the crises we’re facing today are in part because we ignored that rule for so long. We have to be reckless now, too. We have to be willing to try modes of life that we’re not sure will work. We have to be willing to do things that have never been done. We have to be willing to take the risk of failure, because if we continue to be paralyzed by fear of the new, we will be consumed by the devil we know.

I think we can have a future with a better standard of living that most people have today, while also leaving this planet a better place to live. While a lot of that will come from re-using materials, and building things to last, it seems likely that there will still be a need for mining. The upside of needing to do this cleanup work is that it will almost certainly teach us how to make mining something that’s more or less environmentally friendly.

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  1. Oggie: Mathom says

    mines continue to harm salmonid-bearing watersheds through contaminants,

    The first forest fire I was ever assigned to was the Panther Fire in Idaho way back in 2000. One of the roadblocks to which I was assigned was along a feeder stream of Panther Creek. During the three days that I was at that roadblock, I turned back about 100 civilian vehicles trying to head for a hot spring up to the north. I had to stay inside my vehicle, wait for the dust to settle, and then send them back. I had been warned not to exit my vehicle because the road was built across alluvial fill made up of mine waste. Unfortunately, because of the mining, the alluvial fill of the creek bottom was contaminated with toxic levels of arsenic and cyanide. It was dangerous to walk on the dirt and all vehicles were warned to turn the vent system off and put all windows up. By the time Panther Creek drained into the Salmon River, the soil and water were ‘minimally contaminated’ though fish from the creek were not safe for consumption. The last time a salmon had been seen in that creek was about 1960.

    stream channel burial and streamflow alteration.

    I have also been to a couple of fires up in northern California, including two different fires, about 5 years apart, that ended up with me spiked out in an auxiliary camp up near (or in) the town of Forks of Salmon. The smaller creeks up in northwest California (this is in the Klamath River drainage) suffered severely from gold mining. Some deep mining, lots of placer mining. The creek and river bottoms (not so much on the Klamath, but virtually every tributary) have short sections of cascades, waterfalls and rapids, interspersed with longer areas of randomly piled rocks with the creek sort of going through. The damage from the high-pressure water hoses to the large and deep sorted sediments was breathtakingly sad. And the Salmon River up in northern California had no salmon in it until just a few decades ago.

    Environmental degradation not only creates eye sores but causes amazing long-term damage to the ecosystems. So far we have historical evidence to show the damage. How long into the future with the damage continue to interfere with the ecosystems? We don’t know. And we won’t know during the lifetime of any of us contemplating the situation now.

  2. says

    When I saw “mines” in the headline, I expected them to be the kind of mines that kill you if you step on them. I’d hazard a guess that those aren’t great for wildlife either.

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