Environmental audit gives Cariboo placer gold miners failing grade

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Nearly three-quarters of Cariboo gold miners failed a “clandestine” audit on environmental standards, according to documents released through a provincial freedom of information request.

The B.C. Environment audit report, completed in May 2011, found that of 23 placer mining operations in the Cariboo, 74 per cent were not in compliance with their permits setting out a plan for mining and restoring the land after the mine operation was complete.

The audit also found placer miners in central B.C. were working within a 10-metre setback from streams and rivers more than half the time.

Placer miners were also working in streams without authorization 43 per cent of the time. Waste water discharge into streams and ponds was observed at 30 per cent of the sites.

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Dozens of placer operations are located in the Cariboo, largely east of Quesnel and Williams Lake, in a region famous for the 19th-century gold rush at Barkerville.

The region is also home to high-value salmon and trout fisheries on rivers such as the Quesnel, Cariboo, Cottonwood and Bowron.

The placer mines range from one-person operations to larger operations that employ dozens of people and use heavy equipment to extract gold from sand and gravel.

The Cariboo Gold Miners Association only recently learned about the audit, where site visits were carried out in 2010, and called it “clandestine.”

The findings were made public through a provincial freedom of information request released in October 2012 on the B.C. government’s open information website.

Cariboo Mining Association president Chris Winthers said placer miners are nervous they will face more red tape in an industry already heavily regulated.

“The ministry of environment is not concerned at all if we lose the placer mining industry. They’re putting much more value over a fish than they are a human and a human making a living, but it’s always been that way,” said Winthers.

Most placer miners are conscientious operators, he said.

The B.C. Environment audit ruffled the feathers of B.C. Ministry of Mines and Energy inspectors, who said environment ministry staff were overstepping their jurisdiction.

Cariboo North Independent MLA Bob Simpson said the province simply has to come up with a compliance and enforcement system that makes sense.

Turf wars between government departments are not productive, said Simpson, whose riding encompasses many of the placer mines in the Cariboo.

Rodger Stewart, director of resource management in the Cariboo, said jurisdictional issues have not been completely resolved, but the two ministries are now trying to work closer together.

The ministries are planning to launch joint inspections next spring.

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