2.1.1 Section Scope
This section provides a brief overview of the British Columbian regulatory process as it affects:
- Preparation by the proponent (project developer) of groundwater models prepared to support regulatory review of natural resource projects.
- Review of groundwater models by regulators who are charged with acceptance or rejection of the proponent's applications to proceed with the project.
In British Columbia (as in most jurisdictions in Canada), if a project meets or exceeds the thresholds in the reviewable projects regulations, an Environmental Assessment must be completed and an Environmental Assessment (EA) certificate issued before a resource project may proceed to permitting, construction, operation, and ultimately closure and restoration. In certain instances, such as projects that may have a deleterious effect on fish habitat, projects may require a Canadian Environmental Assessment. This subsection describes the activities leading up to issue of an EA certificate by the regulator (see Figure 2-1 for an example applied to a mine).
Further information on the British Columbia EA process can be found at:
2.1.3 Phases of Regulator Interaction
The phases of project development and implementation at which the proponent may be submitting groundwater models to the regulators for review and approval are:
- Pre-Application - Model objectives & requirements; model plans.
- Environmental Assessment - Model reports with results.
- Permitting - Updated EA Models, if possible or required, or new models, reports and results.
- Operation - Updated EA or permitting models, if possible or required.
- Closure - Updated EA or permitting models, if possible or required.
2.1.4 Why A Groundwater Model?
Groundwater models may be compiled as part of the planning and implementation of a resource project and used to:
- Describe the groundwater flow system and the main processes that influence system behavior.
- Assess impacts (type, degree, extent) related to various project components (e.g., dewatering of a proposed open pit; potential reduction in baseflow from well pumping).
- Assess potential effects and mitigation options related to groundwater pathways.
- Guide impact management (i.e., mitigation and contingency measures).
- Communicate information to regulators and proponents.
Accordingly, this section presents an overview of how groundwater modelling can be used to support regulatory review of natural resource projects involving groundwater-specific issues.
2.1.5 Scheduling of Modelling Study
Groundwater modelling study schedules should be developed at an early stage in the overall environmental assessment process. As described later in this section, early identification of the need for and scope of, groundwater modelling is beneficial for the project schedule. If groundwater modelling is required, a modelling study schedule should reflect the estimated time for each of the model phases and the potential for iterations between data collection and model updates.
The following are representative modelling timeframes for different levels of model complexity (MDBC, 2001):
- Basic: < 1 month (available data are sufficient to achieve modelling objectives)
- Moderate: 1 to 6 months (some data collection and iteration may be required)
- Complex: > 6 months to several years (if used as a management tool during project development and ongoing data collection and iteration to improve model confidence are likely).
Model complexity and the modelling process are discussed in more detail in Section 3 of these guidelines.
The potential for delays can often be correlated with the need to collect additional data. Data collection that occurs during model development often requires updates to both the conceptual and mathematical models. If significant effort has been expended on mathematical modelling, additional data may require re-calibration, re-verification, and additional effort. As such, there is significant financial and schedule benefit to be gained by identifying data gaps early in the modelling process.
Despite best efforts, uncertainty as to the exact development plan is common at the early stages of mining and resource development projects. For example, during early stages of mine planning, planners and engineers are often assessing the financial benefits and trade-off of alternative mine development strategies, some of which can directly and significantly impact the objectives and modelling approach of the groundwater model.
The same may be said about management plans developed to quantify potential environmental effects. At an early stage in natural resource planning, the need for a specific management plan may not be identified or may be defined only at the level required to properly integrate with the groundwater model.
The groundwater model may have to be modified to address the management plan. In terms of groundwater extraction, management plans developed to address effects, such as increased depletion of surface waters, may be designed to minimize such impacts.
The personnel conducting the groundwater study need to retain good communication with project planners and other project team members to ensure that all components are synchronized. This requires significant effort and can often be the cause for project delays.
The first step in proponent-regulator interaction is the pre-application phase, which includes data compilation and collection, and the preparation and submission of the Project Description for reviewable projects (Figure 2-1). The various phases of baseline groundwater modelling may be undertaken in conjunction with an environmental assessment (Figure 2-2). The pre-application phase of groundwater modelling includes work done prior to submission of the application for an EA certificate (Box 1 on Figure 2-2). Discussions with regulators are recommended at this stage about potential issues, baseline data collection requirements, and methods to complete effects assessments. Note that box numbers included on Figure 2-2 are for reference only and do not correspond to specific steps in the modelling process.
Figure 2-1: The mine approval process and groundwater modelling.
Figure 2-2: Groundwater modelling and the EA process.
2.2.2 Application Information Requirements
If the EAO determines that a project is reviewable (based on predefined thresholds set out in the Environmental Assessment Act, Reviewable Projects Regulation under the Environmental Assessment Act) and a Section 10 order is issued, a working group of First Nations and government agencies is established and an application information requirements (AIR) is prepared by the Proponent, in consultation with the regulatory agencies. This should occur in parallel or after the Box 1 steps on Figure 2-2 are in progress. Once reviewed and accepted by EAO, the AIR establishes: the project study scope; the valued components to be studied; and the information to be included in the project application. If an EA is not reviewable, groundwater assessment requirements may be subject to other permits, but may not specifically require modelling.
During this phase, the following work related to groundwater modelling may be undertaken by the Proponent:
- Identify potential groundwater pathways for existing and proposed development conditions
- List potential contaminants of concern from proposed development.
- Identify potential impacts on groundwater resources and associated impacts to existing and future groundwater uses, including socio-economic and environmental uses.
- Initiate development of a conceptual groundwater model for existing and proposed conditions.
- Consult with regulators and the EA working group on how modelling can be used to support natural resources development and regulatory review.
- Define potential groundwater modelling objectives.
- Assess and prioritize groundwater modelling data needs.
- Develop a data collection schedule and begin (or continue) data collection. Baseline data collection for certain project valued ecosystem components (VECs) may have already been initiated, such as surface water flows and quality, ecological surveys, etc.
None of the work done during this pre-application phase (up to Box 4 in Figure 2-2) is likely to be final or definitive. The groundwater modelling process during the pre-application phase is very much an iterative process between definition of model objectives, data collection, conceptual model development, and possibly even preliminary mathematical modelling. On-going discussion with regulators, including the project EA working group is recommended throughout the pre-application phase.
2.2.3 Application Preparation and Submission
During this application preparation phase, the proponent commences (or continues) studies and information gathering as outlined in the AIR. From the perspective of groundwater modelling, this could be considered the formal starting point for the modelling process, although some components, such as baseline data collection, will already be underway to establish time trends or ranges for various parameters. If preliminary conservative calculations or analyses are being conducted, emphasis may still be placed on uncertainty analyses, but additional data are becoming available to allow a shift towards mathematical model calibration and sensitivity analyses, as required.
At this stage, regular consultation with regulatory agencies on the progress of groundwater modelling processes, initial findings and potential issues should be ongoing (see Figure 2-2). If formally required as part of the AIR, expectations should be clearly outlined but, even if not specifically outlined, the application preparation phase is the best opportunity for developing consensus on the assessment approach, which will help to avoid future delays related to insufficient information, methods, or outcomes. If not specifically required, it is during this phase that the proponent (and its contractors) has the opportunity to be transparent with and obtain input or guidance from regulators.
Assuming that the studies and information are acceptable, the application is submitted for review. If the application is determined by the EAO to be adequate, it will be accepted for review.
2.3.1 Groundwater Modelling Requirements
A groundwater model for an Environmental Assessment must establish at least the following:
- The baseline conditions are sufficiently well defined to enable the impact of the proposed activity to be reasonably assessed.
- The model is able to be used to reasonably model and quantify the impact of proposed activities on the groundwater and hence potential receptors.
In addition, the following are considerations for a groundwater modelling study undertaken in support of an Environmental Assessment (see Figure 2-2):
- Baseline or impact-specific data collection programs need to be of sufficient scope to allow model objectives to be realized.
- Model objectives may be broad in terms of result accuracy (e.g. order of magnitude), but must be sufficient to provide confidence that the predictions are assessed to a sufficient level.
- VEC's, potential impacts and mitigation concepts (if not preliminary designs) need to be understood or available.
- Conservative assumptions should be used, and mitigations should be robust but not necessarily detailed to a high degree of specificity.
An EA model that concludes with significant adverse effects, or a high risk of significant adverse effects on groundwater, may result in an EA certificate not being issued unless the significant adverse effects can be mitigated to a level acceptable to the regulatory agencies.
2.3.2 Application Review
Once the application is accepted, the Environmental Assessment Office (EAO) has 180 days to review the application. This phase includes public review periods. The EAO starts preparing the draft assessment report. If the application has deficiencies, the time for review may be stopped (suspended) so the proponent can address the deficiencies.
This is when an in-depth review of the modelling studies supporting the EA is usually performed by the regulatory agencies (see Section 11).
2.3.3 Assessment Report
At the conclusion of the 180 day Application Review, the EAO submits its Assessment Report to Ministers. The Assessment Report includes conditions of the EA certificate to address environmental issues (e.g. to establish a monitoring program or commitment to implement a well-protection plan).
Conditions imposed on the proponent in regards to groundwater management or mitigation plans are a possible outcome of conservative assumptions used during the groundwater modelling process to address uncertainties or limited data. While conditions cannot necessarily be avoided entirely by improved data collection and model formulation, consultation earlier on in the process may reduce the requirement for conditions.
2.3.4 Minister's Decision & Permits
Once the Application Review is completed, the responsible Ministers have 45 days in which to decide whether to issue an EA certificate (EAC), or require additional information. At this stage, if the EAC is issued, the proponent may proceed with permit applications.
For the purposes of these guidelines, it is assumed that the Permitting Process follows after the issuance of an EAC. The EA may include agreed-on mitigation concepts or preliminary designs (if the potential exists for significant effects). During permitting, models may be improved with respect to calibration/verification based on additional data collection and analyses. If a project has not been required to undergo an EA, groundwater requirements may differ, depending on permitting requirements and regulatory agency. If an EA is not required, groundwater modelling may not be required.
2.4.2 Permitting Terms of Reference
In the Permitting Process, similar to the EA process, a terms of reference (AIR in EA) is required. As with the EA process, definition and review of the terms of reference (or AIR) provides an opportunity for consultation with regulatory agencies and the potential to avoid lengthening of the permitting process by addressing issues at an early stage.
2.4.3 Permits Other than EA
For mining or aggregate extraction processes, additional permits (e.g., under the Mines Act or Environmental Management Act) are required for which groundwater modelling may be necessary or justified. These include, Mine Permits, discharge permits or environmental effects monitoring programs.
Mine permit applications include sections on environmental effects. Often, when mining projects are progressing to the mine permitting stage, additional information may be available, either monitoring or mine planning, and the opportunity for additional groundwater modelling, such as model refinement, model verification, and/or post-audit exists.
Other permits that may require groundwater modelling include discharge or effluent permits. As these permits are typically applied for after issuance of an EA certificate, or perhaps a mine permit, groundwater models may already be sufficient for incorporation, if required. If groundwater modelling at a different level or for a specific area is required, and not appropriately addressed at an earlier stage, further effort and consultation may be required. Once operational data are available (e.g., drawdown in response to pit excavation), improved verification or re-calibration of the groundwater model using larger-scale stresses may be achievable.
Proponents may combine permit applications in a single package. In this case, the approach and information requirements may be such that a single groundwater model may be used for multiple applications.
2.4.4 Groundwater Modelling During Permitting
Mine permit work typically includes a focus on engineering designs, but opportunities for data collection in regards to impact assessments increase during work carried out in the course of this phase. Uncertainties identified during modelling at earlier stages may be targeted by specific site investigations. Mitigation concepts should be progressing in terms of engineering design, which are the focus of data collection programs aimed at providing a higher level of confidence of system effectiveness. Site investigations may identify issues requiring design modifications.
For this category of models, it is reasonable to expect a higher level of complexity (if warranted by a potential impact) and a reduced range of model parameters for uncertainty analysis. Model objectives may not change, but become narrower, or more constrained.
As more detail is often available, models (both conceptual and mathematical) may have to be reconstructed if the mine plan (or, for example, a seepage mitigation design) has changed and/or new field data indicate that the old conceptual model is no longer valid.
2.4.5 Mining Operations
Mining operations begin once the permits are in place. Groundwater monitoring is undertaken during mining.
BC mines are required to periodically renew closure plans and discharge permits. This involves submittal of data and reports to the regulator. It may be necessary and appropriate to update groundwater models and include results as part of the submittal. Since mining imposes significant stresses on the groundwater system, and the monitoring data quantify the impact, this detailed knowledge allows for better calibration of existing models or for development of more complex models and reduced uncertainty. As discussed above, additional information could also necessitate changes to the site conceptual model.
Groundwater modelling during operations can be part of environmental effects monitoring (EEM) or used to assess groundwater management plans. Modelling of potential impacts or updates of models, may be required for renewals of permits and/or applications for mine expansion. If impacts are observed during active mining, mitigation measures may be designed using groundwater models, or regulators may request a model or model update to address reasons for non-compliance with permit conditions, such as seepage at greater than predicted concentrations.
2.4.6 Mine Closure
Closure (and restoration) plans are required at both the EA and Mine Permit stages, and updates are required as part of permit amendment applications and renewal of other permits. For this category of models, a significant level of modelling may be required for impact assessment. In addition, source terms will be better defined and some (limited) calibration of transport modelling may be possible. However, large time frames for closure predictions (>100 years) can still result in large uncertainty requiring conservative assumptions and uncertainty analysis.
For groundwater extraction projects with withdrawal rates of 75 l/s or more, groundwater modelling and effects assessments are typically completed during the EA process. Although construction and operating permits may be required to operate the well as part of a water supply system, currently in BC, extraction of groundwater is not subject to a specific permitting process. While monitoring and well protection programs may have been initiated and on-going, unless specified in the EA certificate or as part of a management plan, additional modelling might be carried out, but is not mandatory.
Most groundwater flow and contaminant transport models which are developed to assess environmental impacts of natural resource projects have to be submitted to the regulatory agencies for review and approval.
Every project has unique project objectives and site conditions and a series of subjective decisions have to be made throughout the modelling process. This subjectivity in modelling can result in disagreement during the review process. For example, what may be an acceptable methodology or assumption for the project modeller, may not be acceptable to the reviewer.
Considering the high degree of professional judgment and the significant lead times (and cost) required for groundwater modelling, early and ongoing consultation between the proponent and the regulator throughout the modelling process is recommended (see Figure 2-2).
Ideally, consultation with the regulatory agency should start at the outset of the modelling project and should establish (adapted from NGCLC, 2001):
- Study objectives (including legislative and policy context) and preliminary modelling objectives.
- Agreement on the initial or interim conceptual model.
- Agreement on the priorities for site investigation.
- Reporting requirements.
Depending on project complexity and sensitivity, subsequent consultation may include establishing agreement on:
- The conceptual model
- Modelling objectives
- Choice of mathematical model and modelling approach
- Scope of model calibration
- Scope of model predictions (e.g. which scenarios)
- Scope of sensitivity/uncertainty analysis (e.g. range of input parameter values)
- Reporting requirements.
Agreements are based on the information available at the time of review and may be subject to change. As additional data become available, additional potential effects are identified or addressed, or if modelling objectives are adjusted, further discussion of the above points may be required.
For complex and/or sensitive resource projects, the consultation should include technical experts from both sides (e.g. technical staff or external peer reviewer representing the regulatory agency and consultants representing the proponent) to assist in the technical aspects of modelling.
Ongoing consultation ensures that agreement is obtained at key stages of the modelling project rather than waiting until the work is completed before areas of disagreement are identified. This way concerns by the regulatory agency are addressed in a timely manner and unnecessary delays in permitting (say due to additional site investigations and/or modelling) are minimized.
- Groundwater models may be used during the environmental assessment process to understand groundwater flow systems and processes, assess impacts and mitigation options, guide management plans, and communicate information.
- Groundwater modelling study schedules should be developed early in the process of assessing potential environmental effects.
- Delays in permitting can often be correlated with the need to collect additional information, sometimes in relation to changes in project plans or management strategies.
- Proponents should work with regulators during the environmental assessment pre-application stage to define the need and scope for groundwater modelling. This interaction should continue throughout the process.
- For mining projects (hardrock or aggregate), additional permits will likely be required following receipt of an EA certificate. Groundwater modelling conducted during the EA application process may be suitable for these additional permits but, typically, more information or more detail may be required. Updates to groundwater models may be required during the permitting stage.
- For mining projects, additional information collected during operations will become available for updating groundwater models. Uncertainty is typically reduced by utilizing this data.
- For groundwater extraction projects having withdrawal rates of 75 L/s or greater, groundwater modelling is typically a requirement.
- Model study schedules should be defined early in the environmental effects assessment
process. Study schedules can be affected by:
- Model scope
- Model complexity
- Available mine or design plans
- Requirements for additional data
- All of the above
- At what point in the EA process should the necessity for groundwater modelling first
- When a project is deemed economic.
- When the EAO (or other regulator) requests a study in the application information requirements.
- When VEC's and potential effects on VEC's have been identified.
- After completion of baseline data collection.
- C and D
- Proponent-regulator communication regarding groundwater modelling should occur:
- During the pre-application stage, when issues are initially explored, baseline data collection programs are being defined and effects assessment methods considered.
- During development of the application information requirements, when regulators are defining application scope, information and study requirements.
- When the groundwater conceptual model is being developed.
- When model predictions or scenario runs are completed.
- All of the above.
- When conducting a groundwater modelling study for a mine permit, one would NOT expect:
- modelling to assess environmental effects.
- Better definition of mine plans and proposed mitigation measures.
- Basic complexity- level models, unless risks to VEC's are low.
- Conceptual models based only on regional data.
- Uncertainty to be completely reduced.
- Early consultation with regulatory agencies should establish:
- Study objectives
- Agreement on conceptual model
- The direction of groundwater flow
- Magnitude of effects
- A and B