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Montana Bio Station researchers discuss mine risks to salmon rivers

Recently, a group of 23 science and policy experts from the United States and Canada released a review of mining risks for watersheds from Montana to British Columbia and Alaska.

The paper in the newspaper Scientists progress brought together experts in salmon ecology, watershed science, mining impacts and mining policy to integrate knowledge across research areas that often operate independently of each other. Led by UM researchers at the Flathead Lake Biological Station, the team found that past and present mining pressures are significant throughout the region and often overlap with large populations of salmon, trout and fish. char.

“Our paper sheds light on the mosaic of more than 3,600 active and abandoned mines located among some of western North America’s most valuable fish habitats,” said Chris Sergeant, FLBS researcher and lead author. of the item. “The largest of these mines processes approximately 160,000 metric tons of earth every day. »

The sergeant said not all mines present the same level of risk, but their review revealed that the damage caused by mining can be severe and long-lasting. The extent of mining pressures on these watersheds highlights the importance of accurately assessing risks to water, fish and communities.

The study examined the ecological complexity of rivers and how mines can impact culturally and economically important fish species such as salmon by contaminating the waters with heavy metals, burying stream habitat, water and diverting water for ore processing. When not managed properly, these cumulative impacts can be impossible to reverse and degrade landscapes for decades or even centuries.

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“Unfortunately, in some cases, we learn the hard way that mines can have profound impacts on aquatic ecosystems, leaching far into the catchment area of ​​the actual mine site, at scales that were not anticipated in the assessment of ‘original impact,’ said Erin Sexton. , co-author of the paper and FLBS senior scientist. “For example, impacts from the Elk Valley coal mining complex in southeastern British Columbia have been documented more than 155 miles downriver from the mines, crossing the international border between the United States and Canada. »

The authors emphasize that up-to-date and transparent science has an important role to play in managing the potential impacts of mines. Emerging science on salmonid ecology, cumulative effects, and how climate change is altering these landscapes can improve mine risk assessment.

The authors highlighted four key issues that will be fundamental to modern, science-based risk assessment and mitigation: understanding the complexity and uncertainty of stressors, considering the cumulative effects of mining activities while throughout the life cycle of a mine, develop realistic mitigation strategies and recognize the potential for climate change. change to amplify the risk.

“Emerging science is revealing the complex realities of how salmon watersheds function in this era of climate change as well as the many different pathways of risk posed by mines,” said co-author Jonathan Moore of Simon Fraser University in British Columbia. “Informed decision-making will require risk assessments that encompass these difficult topics, ranging from cumulative effects to climate change. »

While a low-carbon future will depend to some extent on the minerals mined, it is important to ask whether current and future mining projects are operated in a way that protects fish, water and functioning watersheds. good.

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“Our paper is not for or against mining, but it describes current environmental challenges and gaps in applying science to mining governance,” Sergeant said. “We identify a need and an opportunity for robust and transparent science-based risk assessment, as well as the integration of the goals and values ​​of affected communities. Ultimately, some specific locations may just be too valuable to risk with major risks. mine. »

Source of the story:

Materials provided by The University of Montana. Note: Content may be edited for style and length.

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