Ajax will forever change the Jacko Lake grasslands

The Ajax File: All That Glitters - Part 3 of 5

There are already many signs of human or industrial intrusion on the bunchgrass and sage covered hillsides around Jacko Lake.

Not far from the lake, there is a 300-metre-wide open pit, the remnant of mining exploration decades ago. Gravel roads, left by the company that held mineral claims to the area just south of Kamloops, traverse the area, creating a well-travelled grid.

Many of those routes are lined by large faded tires, the kind that carried trucks filled with raw ore and rock. The tires, now home to weeds and marmots, were put there to keep pick-ups and ATVs from exploring the countryside.

Barbed wire fences contain Jacko Lake anglers to a public day-use area and even on this day, in the middle of Jacko's summer doldrums, anglers rumble in, carrying boats and pulling trailers.

The day-use area - nothing more than a glorified parking lot with an old outhouse - shows signs of heavy use. The grass is beaten down and just beyond the parked vehicles, bits of garbage and debris lay strewn about.

Many footprints have forged a path around the lake to a popular rock fishing point that juts from the shoreline like a pointed finger. Next to the rock someone has left an old pink lawn chair, broken and faded, that he obviously did not want to haul back to the parking lot.

Lastly, cattle graze the hillsides, leaving their own distinctive signs of passing, while invasive weeds like spotted knapweed grows in the ditches and disturbed areas along the roads.

Pristine, untouched wilderness this is not.

Regardless, the area at and around Jacko Lake is "classic grasslands," says Dr. Lauch Fraser, a TRU natural resources professor and vice-chairman of the B.C. Grasslands Conservation Council. And while it is clear humans are here, our use of the area has not diminished the area's ecological value.

At least not yet.

The proposed Ajax mine, however, it if goes ahead, will radically reshape and alter this landscape, Fraser said, for at least the 23-year working life of the mine and likely for 50 to 100 years beyond.

Clearly, there will be substantial environmental impact. It's why there is a rigorous provincial and federal environmental review process underway.

"That's the nature of strip mining," he said. "It can't be avoided."

While KGHM and Abacus, operating under KGHM Ajax Mining Inc., will be required to reclaim the property once mining is complete, Fraser said the company will never be able to make it like it was.

Grasslands are notoriously difficult to restore, Fraser noted. It takes time for Mother Nature to lay down the complex array of organic material that forms the delicate crusts and soils the native vegetation depends on.

"It just takes a long time," he said. "Grasslands are not as productive as other ecosystems."

Grasslands are diminishing in B.C., Fraser said. Only about one per cent of B.C.'s land base is grassland and in almost all cases, the areas are under threat. Like all grasslands, the area around Jacko Lake has at least the potential to be home to many endangered or threatened species of animals, birds, amphibians, reptiles and plants.

Fraser said it is possible to find badgers, a red-listed species, in the mine's proposed area. There are also western toads, great basin spadefoots and perhaps even western rattlesnakes. As well, numerous threatened bird species also use grassland areas like this one, including sharp-tailed grouse. Each spring, mating grouse gather on several well-known leks in the hills in the mine's proposed industrial areas.

Fraser said all of the species may not inhabit the area all of the time. In fact, researchers might struggle to find any of the species at any given time but that does not diminish the importance of the area ecologically.

"You could look all of one summer and not find any of the species," he said. "Then next summer there might be several. But destroy the habitat and it will be a guarantee you will not find any."

Even if the mine does not alter all of the habitat, there is the risk industrial operations will fracture the space to the point it no longer serves the species that need it.

There is a clear relationship between the size of an area and the number of individuals of a species likely to be found there, he said. Large unbroken tracts of land are crucial to many species.

"You need the habitat, and you need enough of the habitat," he said. "What could be here? We don't know."

* * *

There are more questions than answers about the impact the proposed mine will have on the environment, and the few answers given often spark more questions.

KGHM Ajax corporate managers "respectfully declined" The Daily News's invitation to talk about their project's environmental impact, but the company's own documents submitted as part of the environmental review process identify several areas of concern.

A summary report prepared by Knight-Piesold Consulting in Vancouver indicates several key concerns that need to be addressed, including airborne emissions, noise, impacts on water quality, impacts on wildlife, and local contamination of the area by heavy metals.

"The construction of project facilities and infrastructure will permanently remove, alter and/or replace vegetation within the project area," reads the report. "The removal of vegetation will impact wildlife species as a result of habitat alteration, destruction, degradation, fragmentation, and/or obstruction."

As well, the document indicates wildlife could be adversely affected by industrial operations. Vehicles on mine roads will likely kill small animals, while blasting in the pit will destroy others.

"Wildlife unable to escape may be crushed by rock or machinery during the initial excavations. Species most vulnerable to this type of mortality are snakes, amphibians and rodents. Vulnerable species detected in the rock outcrop/grasslands around the pit includes deer mice, long-toed salamander, garter snake and bushy-tailed woodrat, although additional species are likely present. Bats may also roost in rock crevices including four provincially blue-listed species," says the summary.

Dust will rise from the roads and the crushing operations as well as screening, blasting and conveyance of the rock and ore. Noise will be caused by blasting and industrial operations, affecting both people and wildlife.

"A variety of wildlife may be disturbed due to loud construction-related noises such as drilling and blasting. The presence of work crews and noise produced by machinery, and road traffic may also result in disturbance to wildlife. Raptors and great blue herons are sensitive to loud noises in close proximity to nest sites, which can result in stress and nest abandonment."

More than 1,500 metres of Peterson Creek will need to be altered from its current course, causing the potential loss of fish habitat, states the document. There is also the potential for contamination of vegetation and groundwater.

"Heavy metals such as copper, cadmium, lead, chromium and mercury are known to be persistent and mobile in the environment, and to be potentially toxic to many forms of life," said Knight-Piesold.

To date, the company's only public response to any of the concerns has come at an open house information session held in Kamloops in May. Then, project manager Jim Whittaker assured the crowd that KGHM Ajax has been engaged in environmental studies since 2007 and is confident none of the environmental issues is insurmountable.

Dust and noise will be suppressed and water quality protected. Jacko Lake will not drain away, and there will be no leaching or contamination issues from tailings, Whittaker promised.

Not all are so confident.

Bob Hamaguchi, Highland Valley Copper's retired environmental engineer, said the nature of mining makes it extremely difficult at the start to know how the project will end. Things change, things go wrong.

Jacko Lake itself, for example, is vulnerable, even if KGHM Ajax says it is not. The company might have done studies suggesting there is no risk that Jacko Lake will drain away but Hamaguchi said blasting could open pre-existing fractures. If the lake starts to drain, it will be impossible to stop it.

As well, Hamaguchi suspects dust will be a significant problem even through the company has promised it won't. Dust has always been an issue at Highland Valley Copper, he noted.

"There were days you could hardly breathe at Highland Valley," he said. "I suspect there will be significant dust concerns (at Ajax).

"You don't know (what will happen) until you dig it out. That's the big gamble with mining."

Fraser said one of his main concerns with the proposal to date is the fact the company seems to have all the solutions to complex issues that will require more than cursory examinations.

"They already seem to have an answer for everything."

* * *

At the end of the day, the process of considering the Ajax mine proposal is valuable since it forces us to look at our industrial activities and the impacts they have, said Fraser.

Would people care much about the project if it were proposed for a piece of country far from Kamloops, out of sight and mind? We should care, he said, as the environmental impacts of a mine are the same no matter where the miners dig for ore.

"It's very much a philosophical question," he said.

We are a progressive society, Fraser said, and we need minerals like copper. Where should mines like this be built? What environmental cost is acceptable? Are mines better located near urban centres or far from them? Should mining companies develop areas that have already felt human touch or should they be allowed to put pristine wilderness under the shovel?

Fraser is hopeful that bureaucrats and politicians will look at all the impacts as they consider whether to issue an environmental permit.

Personally, however, Fraser said he feels the possible societal benefits are not worth the costs, especially considering the mine's proximity to Kamloops.

"We are in very dangerous country with this one," he said. "The fact that this is in Kamloops city limits. We are a growing city, and I think a mine like this one limits our potential."

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