Recap. On August 4th, 4.5 – 5 million cubic meters of toxic sludge burst from the tailings pond at Imperial Metals’ Mount Polley Mine near Likely, BC (map) and into Polley Lake. Polley Lake levels are rising, threatening another disaster. The government has approved Imperial Metals pumping the toxic sludge from Polley Lake into nearby Quesnel Lake via Hazeltine Creek. (More here and here.)
How big is the disaster? BC Mines Minister Bill Bennett is arguing with local residents and others over whether what happened at the Polley Mine is an “environmental disaster.” No, he says, it’s an industry, “geotechnical and a political disaster,” but not an environmental one. Bennett’s pointing to the evidence of three consecutive water tests that met official guidelines for “arsenic, copper, mercury and selenium” levels for his conclusion. Williams Lake Band chief Ann Louie responded, “I challenge anyone to come up to our territory and look at this disaster and say everything is fine.”
First Nations around and downstream of the disaster shut down all fishing, and “three First Nations said fish are being found very sickly, with the skin peeling off the fish.” First Nations are also preparing to test the salmon themselves to see if they are safe to eat.
Spokespersons for the David Suzuki Foundation, while acknowledging the breach and toxic effluent flooding in the Hazeltine Creek area constitute a disaster, offered a more reasoned and fact-based approach not just for assessing current environmental damage, but also for preventing similar disasters in the future. Throwing up “mud walls” and putting “a bunch of wet, toxic soup behind it” is becoming passe in the industry. Safer alternative approaches to tailings ponds, discussed here, are now in practice in other places. More rigorous monitoring, including for xanthates (toxic to fish), is certainly in order.
Meanwhile, down at the mouth of the Fraser River, sockeye salmon are so thick it’s said “this year’s sockeye run is likely to be one of the best in recent memory.” However, the Pacific Salmon Commission (joint US-Canadian agency) is worried about the sockeye now as they make their return journey up the Fraser to the Mount Polley mine area. Many others are also worried.
Oigins of the disaster. While the government tries to figure out what went wrong up at the Polley Mine, some familiar with the tailings pond are talking:
*A spokesperson for Knight Piesod of Vancouver, BC said the firm alerted both the provincial government and Imperial Metals about the tailings pond problems at the mine. In its letter (at the link) to Imperial Metals CEO Brian Kynoch, Knight Piesod warned that “embankments and the overall tailings impoundment are getting large and it is extremely important that they be monitored, constructed and operate properly to prevent problems in the future.”
*Brian Olding, of Brian Olding and Associates Ltd. (Surrey, BC), consulted with both Imperial Metals and the Williams Lake and Soda Creek First Nations. According to Olding, “More water was coming in over the years than they could deal with . . . They just kept building the walls up higher every year and it got to the point where that was untenable.”
*A former foreman at the tailings dam claimed insufficient rock was piled “on the outside of the dam to shore it up.” 5 million tons of rock on the dam were recommended, but only 1 million tons were used. Why? They “didn’t want to take their large equipment . . . away from delivering ore to the mill.” Now they’re delivering rock to prevent further breaches, using that same equipment.
Imperial Metals claims they still don’t know what caused the breach and had no inkling of trouble beforehand. However, there is evidence of production speed-up prior to the breach. Between Jan-Mar and Apr-Jun of 2014, Mount Polley’s output of copper concentrate, gold and silver increased by 46%, 24% and 35%, respectively. Average daily ore production rates, overall, went up 23%.
Industry practices at Mount Polley are the result of “the steady drumbeat [by the mining industry] for deregulation” which resulted in erosion of regulations and monitoring activities. Two quotes from BC Premier Christy Clark illustrate the point: