Miner Setbacks: BC Mines seminar in Quesnel reveals ongoing challenges for placer miners
Miner Setbacks: BC Mines seminar in Quesnel reveals ongoing challenges for placer miners
by Arthur Topham
April 3rd, 2012
As the heavy snows of yet another long Cariboo winter began their annual yielding to the warming rays of spring, Ministry of Mines officials from the Kamloops Regional District as well as Senior Habitat Biologist, Don Lawence from Williams Lake traveled up to Quesnel to meet with members of the Cariboo Mining Association to discuss issues of common concern.
The day-long seminar at the Quesnel Seniors Center, while not as fully attended by local miners as last year’s workshop, did gain in numbers from other gold seekers further afield all of whom strained mind, ear and eye in order to take in what, for many, must have been at times an overwhelming plethora of government data pertaining to an industry that once required little more than a strong back, a pair of rubber boots, a $5 Free Miner’s License, compass, pick, shovel and gold pan.
Commencing at 9 a.m. CMA President Chris Winther welcomed everyone to the event and in his opening comments stressed the fact that during these times of tough economic and political uncertainty it’s important to remember that there is strength in numbers and that the Cariboo Mining Association must stick together and expand its membership as it forges ahead. A great part of this effort to maintain solidarity while advancing Winther stated, included open and honest debate and cooperation with those government agencies assigned to work with both the placer and the hard rock mining industries throughout the province.
Main spokesperson for the Mines branch, Bruce Hupman, Senior Inspector of Mines for the Mines & Minerals Division – South Central Region based out of Kamloops then took the floor and while introducing his staff and setting out the agenda for the day also echoed the words of Winther by further emphasizing the fact that Mines inspectors, in turn, were also dedicated to working with local and regional associations whose primary purposes were exploration and development of mineral extraction throughout the province as well as advocating for the miner.
As Hupman put it the more communication between those working in the field with those assigned to safeguarding BC’s natural resources was beneficial to all parties involved. He then went on to explain that one of the main reasons for his ministry coming up to speak to the CMA again was to address concerns which the CMA had stated in a letter sent to Premier Christy Clark back in January of 2012; one also sent to the Minister of Mines as well as a number of other ministries and media outlets. Some of those concerns included fee increases, unreasonable limitations on yardage per claim, the downloading of government responsibilities on to the individual miner, road closures and habitat.
The morning session (once an internet connection was eventually secured), commenced with a protracted lecture by Don Smith, Inspector for Mineral Titles & Mines, on the still controversial topic of Online Claim Staking. For those unfamiliar with recent developments in the mining industry this is a relatively new method of staking both placer and mineral claims that commenced back in January of 2005 when the BC government switched from the historic on-the-ground staking method to what many miners today feel is an extremely onerous, complex method of using computers to search out and secure a tenure of potential gold-bearing ground and then manage it.
The term “onerous” is used on purpose due to the fact that the changeover started out with great government fanfare and expectations yet with little apparent forethought in terms of preparation in order to enlightening the mass of placer miners thus affected as to how to go about switching from a technology that formerly included chainsaw files, wooden posts, hand axe and compass to one of quantum changes encompassing internet browsers, pdf files, online mapping strategies, emailing and Global Positioning Systems; all of which were dependent upon relatively sophisticated technical skills, as remote from most miners’ experiences as the satellites that beamed down the data from space.
As a former member of the teaching profession this writer will attest to the fact that Smith did his utmost to once again instruct his audience on the basics of navigating through the seemingly convoluted maze and impenetrable fog of computereze, megabits, boxes and windows and assorted links and chains that comprise the present Mineral Titles Online. For his efforts he deserves an “A”. As to whether or not a similar mark is deserving for having successfully inculcating the cyber-challenging process into the skulls of the placer miners present in the room that is something that remains to be seen. By all appearances the audience in attendance was, for the most part, still left awe-struck as to how the whole process worked, even after Smith’s earnest attempt to shed additional light on what must be, aside from the longstanding sore point of extreme restrictions on yardage, the most difficult aspect of placer mining today.
For the average small miner, who cannot comprehend all the computer crafted conundrums involved in doing one’s Notice of Work, or Emergency Response Plan or Statement of Assessment in order to maintain one’s claims in good standing or even acquiring a claim online, the issue is not only mentally frustrating and stressful but also fraught with emotion and added monetary challenges for it inevitably necessitates having to hire a professional “agent,” at anywhere from $100.00 an hour or more, to do what once was reasonably possible using little more than normal common sense and some friendly pointers freely given from knowledgeable public servants who also once ‘historically’ manned government offices throughout the province.
Smith’s introductory course on maneuvering about on Mineral Titles Online took the greater portion of the morning session and while it’s highly unlikely that the sediment of confusion had cleared by the time he was finished it should, in all fairness, be added that the actual MTO website, once reached, does provide much additional helpful information on making it somewhat user friendly when the basics are grasped.
After lunch the miners were introduced to Don Lawrence, Senior Habitat Biologist with the federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans Canada working out of Williams Lake. Don proceeded to talk about his role within the bigger picture of placer mining and how it was his job to ensure that mineral extraction was carried out in a manner that didn’t necessitate destruction of fish habitat within BC’s rivers and creeks. He went on to talk extensively about the Water Act and all of the assorted regulations associated with it.
The question of sediments being added to fish streams was discussed at length and precipitated much in the way of discussion and queries from the audience as many miners felt that the little amount that they might possible introduce into the creeks and rivers is not enough to have any adverse, long term effects upon salmon or trout spawning. Lawrence went on to explain how various scenarios arise, some of which are natural processes and some due to mechanical occurrences, and how they affect fish at various stages of their growth and migration.
After covering the finer details of how fish are affected by different types of sediments the topic then shifted to what is commonly termed “Riparian Zones” or “Setbacks”. This is another area that has been a bone of contention for placer miners over the years as most miners realize that the closer one gets to the creek the more likely will the chance that gold-bearing gravels will be easier to find and extract. At this juncture in the discussion Bruce Hupman joined Don Smith and via the use of screen pictures began to talk about these Riparian Setbacks and how they work, not only with reference to placer mining but also in terms of how they are becoming an important factor in many other sectors where industrial and urban development continue to encroach upon an ever-diminishing landscape.
From the graphs and charts it became quickly apparent that the placer miners were, relatively speaking, faring much better than other sectors of industry in terms of working distances from fish bearing streams. As it stands now miners can do mechanical work operations with 10 metres of the creek’s or river’s high water mark whereas in all other examples given there was a minimum of 15 metres of setback or even greater.
After covering this aspect of the regulations the talks shifted to reclamation of disturbed ground and then permitting. It was at this point that Hupman held up in his hand a copy of the Health, Safety and Reclamation Code for Mines in British Columbia and like an Old Testament prophet announced to the audience, “This is the ministry’s bible whose word is law.” (or words to that effect).
Grant Feldinger, R.P.F. Inspector of Mines, Permitting working out of Alexis Creek west of Williams Lake then presented information on this aspect of the industry with additional comments and suggestions from Ann Brunke, Inspector of Mines, Permitting from Kamloops.
The reclaiming of ground that is disturbed during placer mining has been in the books for a long time and remains a primary concern for Mines Inspectors whose task it is to see that after testing and extraction has occurred that the environment is returned to as natural a state as formerly existed. Tied in to or concomitant with reclamation is the permitting process wherein inspectors determine beforehand the extent of any proposed disturbance and its potential effect upon the various environmental scenarios that might arise during actual mining. These aspects are included in what is commonly referred to as the Notice of Work (NoW) application and involve the production of maps showing areas where the placer miner will be either testing or extracting as well as data indicating the amount of cubic metres of ground proposed to be mined during the period of the permit along with the various types of mechanical equipment that will be used. In the case of actual area of ground disturbance these factors come into play when the Mines Inspectors determine the size of the bond that is put in place prior to any actual work commencing. Bonding of course is the placer miner’s guarantee to government that once the proposed work has been completed that the ground disturbed will be reclaimed. The money is placed in security with the Minister of Finance and upon meeting the prescribed requirements will then be returned to the miner. In the event that the miner doesn’t live up to their end of the bargain said funds will then be used by the Mines branch to ensure that the reclamation is carried out.
Another chapter of Hupman’s orange bible included the issue of safety for placer miners and was discussed at length. When filling out a NoW it is also necessary for the placer miner to provide the Ministry of Mines with what is known as a MERP or a Mine Emergency Response Plan. This plan ensures that any placer mining operation involving mainly mechanical means of extraction will have in place proper preparations in case of any accidents that might occur during the actual mining period and must include relevant maps and concise information on emergency contact information, safety equipment and all forms of communication that tie into ensuring that in the event of any mishap emergency response crews will be able to reach the exact location where the accident has occurred.
While these protective measures are obviously self-evident when it comes to major mine operations where large numbers of personnel, equipment and infrastructure are involved they can be somewhat over-emphasized for operations that involve only one or two or three miners working on relatively small operations. A good example in terms of cost to the small operator was the issue of first aid equipment deemed by the ministry as essential in order to meet the requirements imposed by the Emergency Response Plan. All mechanical operations on exploration sites are expected to have on hand a minimum BC-Level 2 First Aid Kit which costs around $150.00 (taxes included) or so it states in Hupman’s bible. But when the topic came up for discussion it was mentioned that now, on top of this, it was also necessary to have a Bag Valve Mask, 3 Blankets and an Oxygen Therapy Kit all of which suddenly brought the cost up to around $600.00 (taxes included).
Then of course there are the spill kits to ensure that any liquids such as oil, grease or hydraulic fluids are cleaned up in the event of an accidental spill or mechanical breakdown all of which increase the costs to the small operator and assorted communication devices ranging from radio phones in vehicles to satellite phones and other high tech equipment.
On a more positive note, in reference to the filing of a Notice of Work, it was brought to the attention of the local miners that some changes had taken place in terms of certain tasks involved in the permitting process; ones that the inspectors felt would help speed things up and ensure a quick turn around in terms of time spent on securing the required permit to go to work. While it is still necessary to submit (electronically preferred) one’s NoW application to the Kamloops regional office as a first step (at which time the Inspector gives the application a cursory look in order to determine if all the main requirements have been met), if the basics are in order it is then sent back to Quesnel where it is goes to a newly-formed Front Counter office located in the Ministry of Forests buildings overseen by Dale Bubela, Tenures Officer with the Quesnel Forest District.
Working under Bubela’s supervision is Ray Jungaro, R.F.T. Natural Resources Authorization Coordinator for the Cariboo Region – Quesnel District, whose duties lie in further inspecting the additional requirements of the permitting as they pertain to issues dealing with third parties such as First Nations and Habitat. Once these aspects of the permit are cleared the application is returned to Kamloops for final completion. There still remains a 30-day period in which Jungaro does his due diligence to the process but in some cases the actual time period is much less.
The seminar concluded with participants and Ministry staff continuing to chat about the different issues that had come up throughout the day.
In order to summarize the seminar in terms of its objectives and its effects upon the participants I requested feedback from those in attendance who I had email contacts for. As well my own observations have played a major role in the determination of just how effective the overall process was so it should be born in mind that whatever criticisms are expressed here are not necessarily the general consensus of the CMA as a whole.
In revisiting Mines Inspector Bruce Hupman’s opening remarks at the start of the seminar regarding the reasons for coming up to speak to the CMA I returned to the original letter sent to the various ministries back in January to see how much additional light was added to the local concerns of the placer mining industry. Yes, some discussion had taken place regarding most, if not all, of the points brought forth in the letter especially in the areas of habitat and the downloading of government responsibilities on to the individual miners when dealing with third party interests and this was all good.
In terms of any resolution to the perennial problems involved with simplifying MTO for the locals it was highly debatable whether or not Don Smith’s presentation did anything to reduce the amount of stress and confusion that’s involved in using the new computerized system for staking and maintaining placer claims. It is my opinion that something much more concrete needs to be done in the way of providing simpler, easy to use instructions in order for the average person to go about fulfilling their responsibilities in terms of applying for a NoW or doing their Statement of Work online or filling out an Emergency Response Plan and thus eliminating the need to hire costly outside agents to complete these tasks. It has been seven years now since the government introduced Mineral Titles Online and they still haven’t come up with a reasonable instruction manual, be it in CD format or actual hard copy, which anyone of average intelligence might use to do the computerized paperwork side of their business. The fact that this hasn’t happened in such a long period of time is indicative of a lack of understanding somewhere within the government ministries with respect to their own responsibilities toward the people on the ground who are doing their utmost to make placer mining a viable industry and one that will continue to contribute to BC economy in a substantial way. Be it hiring a professional company that specializes in creating instructional programs or whatever, there needs to be a much greater emphasis placed on this one aspect of the industry that continues to remain a constant problem for miners since its inception.
The one other major concern for the placer mining industry that received very little attention or address was that of the exasperating and debilitating restrictions on the volume of gravel that an individual miner is forced to comply with during what normally is a 6-month season of mining. It’s inconceivable that the Ministry of Mines is unable to get a grip on the fact that limiting a placer miner to a mere 1000 cubic metres of pay dirt per claim is the height of absurdity. Even assuming that the miner might recover an ounce of gold for every 100 cubic metres their seasonal production would, at best, amount to approximately 10 oz. That amount translated into current gold prices would mean a grand total of approximately $16,500.00 per season. Once all the costs of mining have been removed chances are the miner might net themselves a profit of between $5000.00 to $10,000.00. Hardly a politician’s or a bureaucrats or any normal working person’s wages by any stretch of the imagination and definitely not enough to even meet the equivalent of living on social welfare.
Then, only to compound and exacerbate this problem, is the incredible lack of attention given to the granting of leases; one which, like the yardage question, has also reached the point of absurdity and is bordering on fraud for those many applicants who put down their money years ago are still awaiting word on whether on not their leases are to be granted.
Now it may be true that decisions, such as the amount of yardage capable of being worked, ultimately rest with those within government who might best be described as politicians rather than bureaucrats but filling the gap that exists between the placer miner and the politician is a network of bureaucracy that ought to be fully aware of this extremely critical problem and, in turn, working in conjunction with the miner to resolve it by lobbying those higher up in decision-making portfolios to make the necessary adjustments in a timely manner so as to free up the miners who then can expect to work enough ground in a season to survive and continue building up their businesses. And yes, we hear talk of such changes occurring; rumours of major increases in the amount of pay dirt that sometime soon might materialize during the current sitting of the legislature yet nothing that anyone, be they miner or mine inspector, can actually put their finger on and say this is going to happen and when it will happen, all of which leaves the placer miner with a sense of lingering doubt and an inability to plan ahead for the future season. These are hardly positive initiatives for either government or industry and beg the question as to why the Minister of Mines cannot grasp the problem and quickly resolve it and let the industry know about it prior to the commencement of the upcoming mining season.
In my mind these two primary concerns were still left unresolved when the seminar ended and will continue to plague the placer miner until they are dealt with in a timely and reasonable manner.
Having expressed these urgent concerns it now remains to be said that the Mines staff were exceedingly willing and helpful to do all in their power to address the questions and concerns thus covered. As one respondent to my plea for feedback most aptly put it:
“I thought that the Mine’s officials did a very good and informative presentation. They cordially answered the questions asked and seem eager to work with us (in the future also). It was a pleasure to sit at a workshop in a friendly atmosphere and where there was no confrontations. I got the impression that they would rather help work problems out with us & they realize that we are faced with problems.”
Feedback is always welcome. Please contact the writer at firstname.lastname@example.org