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by KateCA

Finger-Pointing and Financing: The Mount Polley Mine Disaster

7:34 pm in Uncategorized by KateCA

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:

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by KateCA

Disaster at the Polley Mine in British Columbia

2:40 pm in Uncategorized by KateCA

Aerials of destruction caused by Mount Polley Mine tailings pond breach

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.

Video and photos are here, here and here