Mount Polley mine spill: an accident waiting to happen?

by Jocelyn Timperley

A enormous tailings pond containing waste from a nearby gold and copper mine collapsed last month in British Columbia (B.C.), releasing billions of litres of wastewater and toxic sludge into nearby lakes and streams. A local state of emergency was called following the incident, and a temporary ban put on using water from the area. But was this just an unfortunate accident, or the inevitable result of Canada’s increasingly lax and mining-friendly environmental regulation?

The spill, which occurred at the Mount Polley mine on the 4th of August, came despite a report published in 2011 warning of a need to find a sustainable way to discharge excess water accumulating in the pond. The report was commissioned by two First Nations tribes and funded by Imperial Metals - the mine’s owner – and also noted that: ‘Neither a detailed monitoring plan nor a detailed emergency contingency plan have yet been developed.’ Meanwhile, the British Columbia Ministry of Environment says it gave Imperial Metals the latest of five warnings in May, after inspections showed the height of wastewater in the tailings pond to exceed authorized levels. The pond also exceeded guideline concentrations of several substances including selenium and molybdenum.

The collapse of the pond destroyed the nearby 10 kilometre-long Hazeltine Creek watershed, which provided a habitat for a variety of animals including numerous fish species. Sludge also reached the nearby Polley and Quesnel Lakes, both of which provide drinking water to local residents as well as fishing.

The ban on water use was lifted a week after the collapse following evaluation by the local health administration which indicated it was safe to drink. But many residents remain wary, and there have been several reports of more severe environmental damage. Meanwhile, Mining Watch Canada notes that it will be difficult to know the longer-term repercussions, especially for fish, which are particularly sensitive to the contaminants release. ‘Much of the contaminant load from the spill will be in the sediments, which will settle out of the water column and not be captured in surface water samples,’ they say.

Numerous local First Nations communities are concerned about the long-term repercussions of the spill on their livelihoods. "Our people are finding dead salmon along the river shores unlike they have ever seen in their lifetime. We are not satisfied with the Ministry of Environment`s initial findings and we are doing what we need to ensure the health and safety of our members by taking part in independent studies,” said Chief Joe Alphonse, Tribal Chair for the Tsilhqot’in National Government, in a press release.

Governments cozying up to mining interests

Although British Columbia has a polluter–pay model, concerns have also been raised about the clean-up cost, which is likely run to the several hundred million dollars. Imperial Metals has pledged to pay to repair the damage, however it is still unclear whether their assets and insurance coverage will indeed cover the full costs.

During the last decade, Canada has intensified its resource extraction, with conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper pushing for Canada to become one of the largest natural resource exporters in the world. Harper has been accused of weakening environmental protections such as the Canadian Fisheries Act in favour of mining and other industries.

Despite the spill being described as Canada’s largest mining disaster ever, the incident has received little attention outside Canada.

In an article in Huffington Post Canada, Canadian environmentalist David Suzuki said the spill was ‘predictable’ and criticised the use of open tailings ponds to contain mining waste. ‘Smaller underground mines are finding safer ways to deal with waste by backfilling tailings. Drying tailings or turning them to a paste before containment are two other options,’ he said. ‘Safer solutions cost more, making them less popular with profit-focused corporations. But surely [British Columbia’s] $8-billion mining industry can afford to pay more for public and environmental safety.

Questions have also been raised about officials possibly downplaying the effects of the spill. Local governments have often formed close ties with industry in Canada, and campaign records indicate that Imperial Metals and its related companies and investors have donated over $200,000 to British Columbia’s ruling Liberal Party since 2005. The controlling shareholder of Imperial Metals also helped organise a $1-million private fundraiser last year in support of British Columbia Premier Christy Clark’s re-election bid.

However, a review set up by the B.C. government to investigate tailings dam at the Mount Polley mine in the wake of the spill appear to address only technical causes, and fail to consider any legislation or government oversight. A petition by the B.C green party requesting a fully independent process to investigate the disaster has so far garnered almost 2,500 signatures.

This crisis should never have been allowed to happen and highlights systematic failures of B.C.’s environmental laws and standards, monitoring and enforcement protocols, as well as crisis-readiness,’ said Jens Wieting, Forest and Climate Campaigner at the Sierra Club B.C.

If risks are too high and long-term solutions unavailable or too expensive the only way to ensure that toxic tailings are kept out of our precious waterways and pristine landscapes may be to avoid mining in some areas altogether,’ said David Suzuki.

Time will tell if the government and people of British Columbia are now ready, after the Mount Polley disaster, to contemplate this possibility.

Jocelyn Timperley