Is BC Setting The Stage For Another Mount Polley Disaster?

Environmental Impacts & The Need For Social License

By Roy L Hales

Screen-shot-2014-03-18-at-3.43.47-PM1Twenty-four million cubic meters of silt, metals and water spilled into the adjacent waterways, when the Mount Polley tailings pond dam breached. It has been called one of Canada’s worst environmental disasters. The province’s independent review panel made six recommendations, one of which was that tailings and water should not be mixed anymore in BC. This did not please the mining companies who say dry stacking of tailings would cost too much. The Clark Government appears to concur. An application to restart Mount Polley, with tailings in water, is under consideration. The Secwepemc Peoples regard this as “a violation of sovereignty” which “opens the territory up to further damage.” Is BC  setting the stage for another Mount Polley Disaster?

Consent of the Aboriginal People

“I do not believe that any mine should be built without the consent of the aboriginal people whose (traditional) territory is being used. I think we should end forever this idea of forcing mines into First Nations territories,” said Joe Foy, Campaign Director with the Wilderness Committee.

He emphasized the need for mining projects to have social license with local communities as well. Some mines have cost communities more money, in terms of clean-up and lost revenues to other industries, than the project produced. Projects should go forward because the local population believe they are beneficial and there has to be room for them to say “no, it is not worth it.”

Tailings Ponds

One of Foy’s references to Mount Polley was more colorful, “The application to use an old mine pit for new tailings holding facility feels like it is coming off a hastily written plan from the back of a napkin.”

Photo Credit: Mount Polley tailings pond days before the breach by Jesse Allen, using Landsat data from the U.S. Geological Survey via wikipedia (Public Domain)
Photo Credit: Mount Polley tailings pond days before the breach by Jesse Allen, using Landsat data from the U.S. Geological Survey via wikipedia (Public Domain)

Regarding the breach of August 4, 2014, he said, “We lucked out that the Mount Polley mine area has a low sulfur content. The lower the sulphur content, the lower the risk of acid mine drainage, but the water flowing into Quesnel Lake still has levels of metals that are higher than the Canadian drinking water standards.”

No One Is Really Certain

No one is really certain what is happening at the bottom of Quesnel Lake, which received much of the tailings pond’s content. The lake’s level has risen 7.7 centimeters. The water is now 1 to 2.5 C warmer.

“A lot of the visual stuff has already sorted itself out. I think a lot of what was in the water has been flushed out and so the longer term concerns is what is left at the bottom,” said Bernard Laval, from the University of British Columbia’s Department of Civil Engineering.

Though Quesnel Lake’s water is presently drinkable, he hopes they will keep monitoring for the next 5 to 10 years. There is little chance of a problem developing downstream in the Fraser River, whose contents are constantly being flushed and dispersed. The lake’s waters are more confined.

His best case scenario is that “all the impacts are done,” Quesnel Lake “has adjusted” and “if we leave the stuff on the bottom alone it will be fine.” The worst case scenario is “there is a bunch of stuff on the bottom and it is going to slowly leach in and work its way up the food chain.”

The Impact To Sockeye Salmon

Photo Credit: Mount Polley tailings pond emptied into surrounding waterways after the breach by Jesse Allen, using Landsat data from the U.S. Geological Survey via wikipedia (Public Domain)
Photo Credit: Mount Polley tailings pond emptied into surrounding waterways after the breach by Jesse Allen, using Landsat data from the U.S. Geological Survey via wikipedia (Public Domain)

Foy is concerned about the impact to sockeye salmon. Some years, Quesnel Lake supplies a quarter of the fish in the world’s largest sockeye run. Before the Mount Polley disaster, it was also one of few places in BC where the fish population was growing. What effect did the Mount Polley disaster have on young sockeye?

“We do not know what the increased levels of metals will do in the short, medium and long term. Will some of those metal bioaccumulate? Will they end up in key food sources? (These metals were) dumped into arguably one of the most important salmon bearing lakes in the province?” said Foy.

Is B.C. Setting The Stage For Another Mount Polley Disaster?

He referred to the province’s older tailings ponds as a ticking time bomb. They sit there “forever.” Foy suggested readers get onto google earth and use the search engine to look up how much of the province is occupied by tailings ponds.

“If water gets in tailings and you get acid mine drainage, then you’ve got a really serious problem. Like you had and have at Britannia and some of the other mines in the province. In the attempt to keep tailings away from oxygen, mining companies have started to bury tailings underwater. If you can keep them away from oxygen, you can prevent acid mine drainage.”

“When you get a disaster like we had at Mount Polley, all of your tailings are exposed to oxygen. Rather than being buried under water, water is running over tailings and transporting various chemicals into water bodies. That’s what is happening right now with Mount Polley.”

Foy added, “We need to follow the recommendations that have come out of the independent study the provincial government commissioned (on the Mount Polley disaster), especially the recommendation we should ban tailings ponds in new mines in British Columbia.”

Top Photo Credit: “Murky Windows,” taken near Seattle by Ingrid Taylar via Flickr (CC By SA, 2.0 License)

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