By Sage Birchwater —
The water flowing out of Quesnel Lake under the bridge at Likely is murky six months after the Mount Polley Mine disaster sent millions of tons of mining effluent down Hazeltine Creek and into Quesnel Lake on August 4, 2014. Historically, the water in Quesnel River is clear at this time of year.
In mid-January, 2015, the Xat’sull/Soda Creek First Nation, Williams Lake First Nations, and the Northern Secwepemc Tribal Council (NStQ) hosted a community information meeting in Likely to bring people up to date on their response the mine disaster, and to ask for local concerns.
NStQ mining co-oordinator Jacinda Mack introduced the team of experts hired by the Tribal Council to assess the breach and help devise a plan to clean up the contamination.
The team includes: Brian Olding, head of environmental planning; Ernest Kroeker and Richard Holmes advising on fisheries; Amy Crook of the Fair Mining Collaborative to develop mining policy; and, mining engineer, Jim Kuipers, hired to review all aspects of the investigation into the breach and to review any work that needs to be done on the dam and tailings facility. He will also be looking at any new permits submitted by Imperial Metals to reopen the mine.
With our own experts, we’re working as equals, not just reviewing government and Mount Polley reports.”
Mack said the team also includes natural resources and economic development staff from both First Nation communities.
Chief Ann Louie of Williams Lake First Nation said the team has been actively engaged in reviewing all the material gathered by Imperial Metals and the government. “We also want to support the residents of Likely,” she said.
Xat’sull Chief Bev Sellars said the NStQ received funding to hire its own reputable consultants separate from government and industry. “It’s important to have that information too,” she said.
Sellars acknowledged the contamination of Quesnel Lake and the Fraser River watershed is a concern to people all over, not just First Nations. “We’re looking forward to working with you,” she told Likely residents. “We want to share our experts with you.”
Jacinda Mack said the team is seeking input from the people of Likely to bring to the government to government discussions between Secwepemc chiefs and the provincial ministries.
“We are looking into the cause of the breach and struggling to understand the ongoing impact on the environment,” said Mack. “With our own experts, we’re working as equals, not just reviewing government and Mount Polley reports.”
Quesnel Lake is the nursery where juvenile sockeye feed for a whole year,” he said. “If toxins are mobile and bio-available, it’s going to be a big problem.”
Brian Olding said there is still huge uncertainty on how long-lasting the effects of the breach will be. He said it is unknown how tightly the metals are attached to the particles in the tailings material along Hazeltine Creek and Quesnel Lake.
Olding credits Mount Polley Mine for responding quickly to stop the sedimentation into Quesnel Lake. “We want the restoration along Hazeltine Creek done to the reasonably highest standard possible,” he said.
He also said the fate of Quesnel Lake is harder to predict. “There’s still a lot we don’t know about the long-term impact on the water quality. It is very complex and needs to be done independently from the mine and government.”
With Imperial Metals making application to reopen the mine at half-capacity using the vacant Springer pit to hold the tailings, Olding said studies are needed to determine at what point the Springer Pit will start spilling effluent into the ground water.
Ernest Kroeker, fisheries manager for NStQ, said the spill is affecting two kinds of fish: migratory salmon and resident Quesnel Lake Rainbow trout. He said the four migratory species of salmon: Chinook, Coho, Sockeye, and Pinks, occupy the watershed for a relatively short period of time. The main spawning site for Coho is McKinley Creek up the Horsefly River; Chinooks spawn at the Likely Bridge; and, the Sockeye spawn up the Horsefly and Mitchell Rivers.
Kroeker said the biggest concern for the Sockeye isn’t the spawning grounds; it’s the rearing grounds. “Quesnel Lake is the nursery where juvenile sockeye feed for a whole year,” he said. “If toxins are mobile and bio-available, it’s going to be a big problem.”
Most government agencies didn’t send their best people to work on this,” he said. “It is ridiculous. The Department of Fisheries and Oceans no longer deals with fish habitat.”
He said Sockeye contaminated with toxins will have a far-ranging effect on the Lower Fraser and the coast.
He said resident Rainbow trout that live up to 20 years in Quesnel Lake are in the most danger of being affected in a negative way. “Bio-accumulation works from the bottom up,” he said. “It takes a while for bio-organisms to pick up toxins, but with each step you magnify the accumulations. It won’t happen in one year or three or four. It’s going to take some time to figure out how serious a problem it will be.”
Kroeker said ever since the breach, a lot of questions have been raised. “The most important thing is to keep asking the right questions, and work at getting the answers,” he said.
He adds it was fortunate the Quesnel River Research Station was operating when the breach occurred. The crew there began working immediately. The same can’t be said for government.
“Most government agencies didn’t send their best people to work on this,” he said. “It is ridiculous. The Department of Fisheries and Oceans no longer deals with fish habitat. There was an inadequate response from every government ministry. It’s absolutely shocking.”
Jacinda Mack said the NStQ sent a formal request to the federal government asking why the Department of Fisheries and Oceans failed to respond immediately to the breach. “We don’t know what DFO’s role is,” she said. “It’s very unclear. That’s why we formally submitted a question paper. They are required by law to answer what their involvement has been and what they’ve done to date.”
Amy Crook said she had some good news to bring the meeting. For the past four years she has been doing exhaustive research putting a mining policy together for the NStQ of the best mining practices around the world. Since the 400-page document was released on the NStQ website it has received a thousand downloads from all over the world.
Chief Bev Sellars said the NStQ was in the process of putting the mining policy in place when the breach occurred. “The more people who use this policy the better it will be for everybody,” she said.
Like everyone else, the NStQ and their team of experts are anxiously awaiting the release of the independent panel hired by the province to report on the Mount Polley breach.
“We have a lot of really good people who are highly respected who have expertise at least equal to the mine and government,” said Jacinda Mack. “We will go over the report and see what the recommendations are and continue being proactive in making sure all our expertise is fully utilized.”
On January 30, the province’s independent review panel released its engineering investigation report, identifying the physical cause of the Mount Polley breach.
The 147-page document plus appendices, determined that the breach occurred because a continuous layer of glacial silt, known as glaciolacustrine (GLU), below the tailings storage facility (TSF), caused a weakness in the foundation of the dam. The three-person Panel of Norbert Morgenster, Dirk van Zyl and Steven G. Vick, shadowed by NStQ’s Jim Kuipers, concluded that this fatal construction flaw led to the breach.
The Panel also observed that if the steep downstream slope of the TSF embankment had been flattened by adding more rock buttressing material to the perimeter, the breach would not have occurred. “The slope was in the process of being flattened to meet its ultimate design criteria at the time of the accident,” the Panel stated.
When asked if the Panel looked into the unheeded warnings by Knights-Piesold, the original engineering firm that designed the TSF, and safety concerns expressed by mine employees, van Zyl said these were outside the terms of reference of the Panel. “Our mandate was to determine the physical cause of the breach. Other investigations by the Ministry of Mines and the Conservation Service will look into these other matters.”
Jacinda Mack said the NStQ is reserving comment on the Panel report until its members have read it. “Our experts are reviewing it in detail,” she said.
Lori Halls, assistant deputy minister for the Ministry of Environment said her staff will devour the report. “It has substantial information for us to look at. It won’t just inform decisions on Mount Polley; it will inform mining practice across the board.”
Sage Birchwater arrived in the Cariboo as a back-to-the-lander in 1973. After 24 years in the Chilcotin he returned to Williams Lake as a freelancer and author of books. He enjoys his time with Caterina, gardening and participating in the rich cultural life of the Cariboo-Chilcotin Coast.