Ecological disaster struck Sunday morning when “4.5 million cubic meters of toxic silt and 10 million cubic meters of water” were released due to a breach up at Imperial Metals’ Mount Polley Mine tailings dam in British Columbia (see map and detail map). BC Indian Chiefs Grand Chief Stewart Phillip comparied this event to the Exxon Valdez disaster, saying: “The frightening fact is both environmental disasters could have been prevented by vigorous government oversight by an effectively resourced agency bound by robust legislative and environmental safeguards.”
The liquid effluent containing “nickel, arsenic, lead and copper and its compounds” from the open-pit copper and gold mine leaked into nearby Polley Lake, which feeds through Hazeltine Creek into Quesnel Lake “near a heavy spawning ground for sockeye salmon,” an estimated 2-1/2 half million of which are just now entering the Fraser River, headed upstream (see map). Back in late May, BC officials “warned the mine about excessive water levels in the tailings pond,” apparently the latest in a series of various warnings over the past two years. The tailings pond, 4-kilometers wide, was built with an earthen dam.
In 2009 Mount Polley mine sought a permit “to discharge up to 1.4 million cubic metres per year of dam seepage effluent from the tailings storage facility to nearby Hazeltine Creek” (and hence into Quesnel Lake); the permit eventually issued “limited discharge to 35 percent of the creek’s daily flow rate, with contaminant limits.” There’s now a “permit amendment request to discharge up to three million cubic metres of treated effluent to Polley Lake.” It’s being reviewed.
Canada’s Ministry of Environment has “ordered” Imperial Metals to deliver a report by August 15th on the “types of substances released by the breach, as well as the ‘initial impacts’ and details on how it monitored the dam.”
Brian Kynoch, president of Imperial Metals, said, “If you had asked me two weeks ago if that could happen, I would have said it couldn’t happen. So I know that for our company, it’s going to take a long time to earn the community’s trust back.” His company has told the community in the past that “the effluent [from the tailings pond] was near provincial drinking water standards” (emphasis added). Other industry spokespersons expressed concern that the disaster might result in “a lot of new requirements on mining companies that would be an overreaction and that would hurt B.C.’s reputation with the industry”.
Who will pay and how much? Eventually, failure “to comply with the pollution abatement order could result in fines of up to $300,000 and six months in jail.” Immediately after news of this week’s breach was released, Imperials Metals Corporation saw a 40% share price reduction and the company’s market value took a hit—from $1.26 billion down to $760 million. However, Imperial Metals had a net income of $41 million last year. Its major shareholder is N. Murray Edwards (reportedly worth $2.2 billion himself) who also chairs the board of directors of Canadian Natural Resources Ltd, “the largest heavy oil producer in Canada.” In 2013, oil spills occurred at four of Canadian Natural Resources’ sites in Alberta—“spills that continue to ooze bitumen more than a year after they were discovered.” Fundamental cause of those breaches? The “company’s own operations.”
In the meantime, residents have been advised “to NOT drink water in the Quesnel Lake, Cariboo Creek, Hazeltine Creek and Polley Lake areas”—a warning that may be “extended to include the entire Quesnel and Cariboo Rivers systems right to the Fraser River.” And only last Monday, “selenium concentration [at Mount Polley] exceeded drinking water guidelines by a factor of 2.8 times”.
At the moment, British Columbia has “ordered Imperial Metals to halt the pollution” in addition to providing damage assessments and so forth. Mines Minister Bill Bennett assures us that “The gap in the wall is large. It was built by machines and men and it can be repaired by machines and men.” Bennett also opined that he’s “losing sleep over this”–and there could be more to come since the tailings from the breach on Sunday have backed up, essentially forming a dam at Polley Lake causing it to rise.
Although BC Premier Christy Clark hopes to have eight new mines up and running by 2015, while upgrading nine existing ones, she is now faced with increasing opposition from the province’s First Nations. As Grand Chief of the Union of BC Indian Chiefs Phillip remarked, “The hill has become much, much steeper,” while Grand Chief of the First Nations Summit, Ed John, remarked “It’s not just up to the governments anymore to make decisions,” reflecting increased confidence First Nations have in the aftermath of the Canadian Supreme Court’s recent Tsilhqot’in decision.
Imperial Metals states, as part of their “corporate philosophy” to “focus on maintaining ownership of core assets ‘own what we operate’” (their emphasis). One thing they own at this moment is the unfolding disaster at the Polley Mine.