Critical mineral mining needs careful assessment

By Anne Lindsey,

Previously published in the Winnipeg Free Press February 3, 2024

Many will have seen the Manitoba Mining Association’s sophisticated ad campaign portraying minerals, such as lithium, cobalt and nickel as energetic, elegant and, let’s face it, beautiful, people. It’s a clever tactic to humanize so-called “critical minerals” required for green tech development. Lithium, for example is key for electric vehicle batteries, copper for wiring, nickel for electronics and so on.

Manitoba’s veritable trove of these minerals has attracted an economic development possibility seized by the previous and the current governments, both of whom have centred mining in their future scenarios for Manitoba. Premier Kinew recently said he aims to “…to build out the supply chain for a zero-emissions future”. Understandably, mining companies and investors are eager to cash in and mineral exploration is at an all-time high in the province.

The excitement is reminiscent of the days of massive hydroelectric dam construction, or even of a gold rush kind of mentality. Hydro created great wealth for Manitoba as a whole, including our enviable position with respect to carbon emissions, but it came with devastating impacts for people, communities, and environments in the North. The same mixed results are true for most mining developments wherever they happen. What lessons have we learned from these experiences? Do we have robust governance processes to ensure sustainability and reduce harm to land and people in the quest for minerals to help combat climate change?

Two current examples of silica extraction suggest not.

At issue, in part anyway, is Manitoba’s environmental legislation, the Environment Act, which sets out a process to assess the impacts of projects and activities, including mining. The process has long needed reform – the Manitoba Law Reform Commission made numerous recommendations in 2015 which have never been implemented.

The Canadian Premium Sands project – an open pit mine in the backyards of Hollow Water First Nation, Seymourville and Manigotagan, illustrates one glaring problem with the Act. Originally promoted as extracting massive amounts of silica sand for the gas fracking industry, it was granted a license only to be altered in scope as a supplier of silica for a solar glass factory to be built in Selkirk. Certainly, a more laudable end use, but the actual sand mining itself was changed substantially from the original proposal. Using the discretion currently permitted by the Act, the previous government deemed the alterations “minor”, and the new project was quickly approved with no opportunity for expert scrutiny and public input – least of all by the people who stand to be most affected. As Elder Marcel Hardisty of Hollow Water points out, there was no “free, prior and informed consent” as demanded by federal law.

A second project, that of Sio Silica, centred around Vivian in southeast Manitoba, did undergo a public process, overseen by the Clean Environment Commission. The process provided no funding for concerned citizens and community groups to hire independent experts to examine the proposal. To its credit, the Commission listened to the public and technical advice from various branches of government. It recommended further study of the cumulative risks to two aquifers, the Winnipeg Sandstone (the target of the sand mining) and the massive Red River Carbonate Aquifer that lies above it. The Carbonate is the largest aquifer in Manitoba and serves as the prime groundwater source for the region, crucial for drinking water, agriculture, forests and ecosystems. The aquifer could play a major role in futureproofing against climate-change-induced droughts.

Some 33 million tonnes of sand and water will be extracted using unproven technology in this context and scale. Not only that, Manitoba’s own regulations (Wells Standard Regulation MR 215 (2015) under the Groundwater and Well Act) forbid the mixing of the two aquifers – an outcome considered inevitable during the drilling. Yet commentary from the Mines Branch was notably absent from the technical reviews.

Some in the previous government pushed for project approval anyway, highlighting how, under the existing legislation, enormously consequential decisions like this one can become political without, in some cases, recourse to adequate knowledge – scientific, traditional, and social – of their impacts.

Manitoba’s environmental assessment process is long overdue for an overhaul. We also owe it to ourselves and future generations to apply an overall sustainability plan for all developments. In the meantime, the current government should say no to projects with such undisputable risks as these silica mines. There’s no denying the urgent need for a multi-faceted response to climate change, and the investment needed to implement it, but absent a plan, we will perpetuate the mistakes common to resource exploitation the world over. As we reach for the next shiny thing, we will be better off having learned from those mistakes.

Anne Lindsey is formerly the Executive Director of the Manitoba Eco-Network, a long-time activist and a Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives Manitoba Research Associate.