It’s hard to find words to express the scale of the impact of Imperial Metals’ Mount Polley Mine tailings pond breach and spill into Quesnel Lake on August 4. The magnitude of this disaster is staggering. For those who live and work in the area and treasure the pristine gem of the Quesnel Lake watershed, it is heartbreaking. As the shock and disbelief wear off, sadness and fear for the river, fish, animals, ecosystem, and people who love and depend on this area, now covered in a river of gray sludge, continue to flow. Anger and mistrust grow towards an industry regulated by a government that should have protected this beautiful place.
Anyone watching the aerial footage in the early days of the disaster is impacted by the horror of the scene. The mountain of debris and river of toxic gray effluent blasting through the once tiny Hazeltine Creek, oozing down into the turquoise depths of Quesnel Lake, is beyond tragic. In this place, renowned for its pure waters and rich salmon and wildlife habitat, it’s hard to imagine a bigger blow.
At the time just before press, with early water test results in, Health Canada has confirmed the safety of the drinking water for the residents of Likely and some areas along the Quesnel River system, yet countless questions remain. The long-term impact of this disaster on the local residents; impacts to First Nations people and their reliance on the food, medicine, and salmon of the watershed; and, the extent of the toxic effects on the wild animals, fish, and waterways are all in question.
What are the cumulative effects of the millions of gallons of tainted water that coursed into Quesnel Lake, down Quesnel River, and into the Fraser? Will we ever know? With reports coming in from First Nations of sickly salmon in the Fraser River and an estimated 1.5 million Sockeye heading up into the Quesnel system, what impact, if any, will this have on their migration? If there are no effects to the fish now, then how will this play out in their life cycles in the years to come? In what ways will the ecosystem, animals, and fish continue to circulate and bio-accumulate the toxins present in Quesnel Lake? Who can we trust for answers?
The pressing concerns of reducing the water levels in Polley Lake to avoid another devastating release of tailings into Quesnel Lake, how to clean up the mass of sludge in Hazeltine Creek and surrounding area, and cost and responsibility of the clean-up, will play out in the days and months to come.
While a government inquiry is being conducted into the cause of the disaster, some are calling for an independent investigation. Despite assurances from the province and Energy and Mines Minister Bill Bennett that the mine was well within compliance, claims of local mine workers that the tailings pond was showing obvious signs of stress tell a different story. The state of environmental regulation of industry in our province, the political affiliations and monetary ties between the Imperial Metals mining company and the Liberal government, the relationship between First Nations and industry, and the safety of industrial mining and other toxin-producing industries across the world are now being brought into question.
When I first arrived in the Cariboo over 20 years ago, I learned firsthand how special Quesnel Lake and the surrounding watershed were. The Quesnel River Watershed Alliance (QRWA), worked tirelessly to protect the water, salmon, animals, and habitat for the generations to come. Never before had I encountered a group of people so passionate about protecting the pristine beauty of a place. They organized Voyageur canoe trips on Quesnel Lake to enjoy its rugged beauty, and challenged industrial logging activities in the area, monitoring their impacts on the watershed.
It was here, near Quesnel Lake, that I began to understand the depth of love and connection people can have for a place. In a cozy log cabin, a group of people young and old—researchers, ranchers, biologists, tourism operators, and wilderness enthusiasts—gathered together to discuss strategies for protection of the watershed. These people were diverse. They were not what people might label “hippie environmentalists.” What they shared was a love for something beyond themselves and a calling to protect it so strong that they were called to action.
I would like to dedicate this issue to long-time Beaver Valley rancher, conservationist, and QRWA member Nora Nicol, who passed away peacefully on August 4, the night of the Mount Polley disaster. She was a passionate advocate for the wild places of the Quesnel River Watershed and it was in her log home, eating her home-made cookies, that I first met the QRWA members, and became friends with this group of remarkable people. Nora was a beloved and important part of the Horsefly community and will be sadly missed. In her memory, I hope that we can continue to speak up and fight for the natural world that so inspires and feeds us with life. Maybe we shouldn’t accept everything we are told about how things need to be in order to prosper in the modern world.
We are all consumers of the products of modern industrial mining and industry, but when there are profits on the line, impacts will be kept hidden and shortcuts will be taken. It’s up to us to keep questioning what it means to live in a modern world and how we impact other life-forms and subsequent generations. Nora and the QRWA taught me to listen to the wilderness of my heart and to speak up for those that have no voice. I learned that you can also have a lot of fun doing it.
In this time to savour the last days of summer and anticipate the return of the salmon, on BC Rivers Day, September 28, many of our thoughts and prayers will be with the Quesnel River watershed. The Horsefly Salmon Festival on Sept 27 and 28 is an opportunity to celebrate the return of our Sockeye salmon run. Please come out and support our watershed and community and the salmon that find their way home. Clean waters and healthy salmon runs are the gold that will sustain us for generations to come. See page 14 for more details on the Horsefly Salmon festival.