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New database to help mines track impact

New environmental regulations requiring Canadian mines to monitor the downstream effects of their effluent have prompted Laurentian University researchers and a number of partners to produce an online reference database.

New environmental regulations requiring Canadian mines to monitor the downstream effects of their effluent have prompted Laurentian University researchers and a number of partners to produce an online reference database.

The university’s Cooperative Freshwater Ecology Unit is working with major miners Inco, Placer Dome, Goldcorp, Newmont Canada and Williams Operating Corporation to produce some new biological benchmarks in assessing the health of aquatic species in Northern lakes and rivers.

Researchers have developed models to assess the impact of mining discharges by monitoring the health of benthic invertebrate species that feed on the bottom of lakes and rivers.

The study, now entering its third year, was prompted by changes to the federal Fisheries Act and new monitoring requirements on mining operation discharges.

As a collaborative effort of regulators, industry and scientists, the study is establishing what’s considered the “normal range of variability” in fresh water invertebrate communities, says Bill Keller, a senior research scientist at Laurentian.

The intent of this bio-monitoring network is to help industry with their environmental reporting requirements.

Keller says before the revisions to the Fisheries Act were made, mining companies were only required to monitor what was coming out of their discharge pipes. The new legislation package places the onus on miners to monitor the downstream effects of effluent as well.

Monitoring invertebrates, such as crayfish and other crustaceans, gives a more reliable standard to measure the effects of industrial impacts on the environment.

The classical approach to assess discharges is to take upstream and downstream water samples to determine that effect. “The problem is, it doesn’t always work, or isn’t always possible,” says Keller.

Bottom dwellers, he says, are a broad and diverse group with “different preferences and tolerances to different types of habitat and environmental conditions.”

Unlike taking the occasional water sample, benthic invertebrates remain year-round in an area, giving a good indication of long-term conditions.

“By looking at how those communities change, it tells you a lot about how the environment might be changing.”

In a collaborative effort with the mining companies, Acadia University, and government regulators including Environment Canada, Ontario Ministry of Environment and the National Water Research Institute, they have been developing standards for several mining regions across the North.

“If you have a site you’re interested in, you can evaluate the community there and see how it measures up against what we consider natural or more normal.”

During the study’s first two years, Laurentian researchers have sampled 400 sites near mining operations in Red Lake, Marathon, Timmins and Sudbury to build their models.

“The idea was to get sites from across Northern Ontario that were representative (of the whole),” says Keller, from fast-flowing streams with rocky bottoms to marshy, shallow streams, and lakes.

By using the environmental conditions and habitat characteristics of a particular site, it can be plugged into a model and compared to appropriate reference sites.

Since the first phase of research began in 2003, researchers have set up a database of reference sites.

Keller say they are very close to having system in place that mining companies can use to help prepare their environmental monitoring reports to federal regulators.

He hopes with more industry and government involvement to sample more sites and create similar models for other sectors such as for forestry and municipal use.

The site data will be accessible via a web-operated system as part of Environment Canada’s Benthic Invertebrate Reference Condition (BIRC) system.

“Partners and users will be able to go in and do this on line,” says Keller. They expect to have the system operational this winter.

LU’s freshwater unit has garnered an international reputation for its work in aquatic ecology on Canadian lakes damaged by acid rain and in assessing industrially damaged ecosystems. Their work in developing an online reference of data base, figures to be among the key areas of research for Laurentian University’s proposed $30 million Centre of Excellence in Mining Innovation (CEMI).