By Sage Birchwater —
There are more questions than answers concerning the August 4 breach of Mount Polley Mine’s tailings facility near Likely, BC. It’s being called the single worst environmental disaster in British Columbia’s history. And that’s before all the details are in.
The full impact of millions of tons of toxic mining waste spilling into one of the most pristine deepwater lakes in the world may never be known. It is a nightmare unimaginable.
Witnesses at the spill say the lake was fizzing and popping like a can of Pepsi being poured into a glass
The fact that Quesnel Lake is a significant part of the Fraser River watershed—the largest salmon-producing river system in the world—deepens the significance. The lake supports three major Sockeye runs as well as Chinook and other salmonid species. An event this massive in one part of the Fraser system affects the whole river.
As far as the salmon go, the timing of the disaster couldn’t have been worse because it occurred during the height of the summer migration runs.
What we know for sure is that around 1:15 a.m. on BC Day, August 4, 2014, the four-kilometre-square tailings facility that has served Mount Polley Mine since 1997, breached its banks.
As Imperial Metals president Brian Kynoch explained it, the pump that recycled “supernatant” water from the 10-million-cubic-metre tailings lake, and sent it up the hill to the processing plant so it could be reused in the production of copper concentrate, stopped working. At that point mine staff went down and discovered the breach.
At a public meeting the day after the breach, Kynoch attempted to alleviate fears by saying the supernatant water is almost fit to drink. For the uninitiated, “supernatant” water is the term used for the liquid lying above a solid residue in a tailings pond.
The problem is, along with the 10 million cubic metres of almost-fit-to-drink water that poured into Quesnel Lake, millions of tons of contaminated sand and sludge also got washed into the water. The exact volume of toxic material in the lake has not been determined.
Witnesses at the spill say the lake was fizzing and popping like a can of Pepsi being poured into a glass.
It feels like there has been a death in our community. Keep us in your prayers today and for the months and years of long-term studies to understand what has happened”
The specific chemical composition of mine sludge in the lake and residue left behind along Hazeltine Creek is also unknown. Jennifer McGuire of the Ministry of Environment said MOE staff only sampled the water in the lake near the spill and not the solid material. She said it was too dangerous for MOE staff to go into the area to get samples.
The other bright note that Kynoch tried to convey was that the waste rock from Mount Polley Mine is not acid-generating. PAG or potentially acid-generating waste material must be kept submerged forever so it doesn’t oxidize and generate acid, which would release heavy metals and toxins into the environment.
It is fortunate that the giant swath of previously submerged tailings waste lining the course of Hazeltine Creek is not acid-generating because it is now exposed to the air. What was once a two-metre-wide water course through the rainforest is now a 150-metre-wide wasteland. So what will happen when it rains? How much more toxic mud and sand will get washed into Quesnel Lake?
Whether it is PAG or NAG (non-acid-generating) material hardly matters. The residue is nasty stuff. According to the Canadian Environmental Protection Agency file on Mount Polley Mine, the five-year accumulations of toxic material dumped into the tailings pond that make up its chemical cocktail include: 311 tonnes of nickel; 278,000 kg of lead; 472,000 kg of arsenic; 2,250 tonnes of zinc; 39,000 tonnes of copper; 7,070 tonnes of vanadium; 8,600 kg of cadmium; 653 tonnes of cobalt; 50,000 tonnes of phosphorus; 48.5 tonnes of antimony; 24,260 tonnes of manganese; 2,645 kg of mercury; and, 24,000 kg of selenium.
Those are the totals for the past five years and the mine has been operational since 1997, so do the math.
And no, I’m no chemist. I flunked chemistry twice in university, but I certainly wouldn’t walk my dog in that mess. So what about the incidental interface with wildlife? Deer, bear, fox, moose, marten, eagles, crows, songbirds, and fish all live there.
These are just some of the questions Imperial Metals and the Ministry of Environment must address, sooner rather than later.
Meanwhile there’s a foreboding in the community of Likely. Jerked from the blissful sanctity of the summer tourist season, where people come to get away from it all, there are strong feelings of uncertainty and outrage.
Across the province people are furious that the government and industry have betrayed their trust.
Brian Kynoch told the people of Likely that tailings pond facilities are not supposed to fail. But the one at Mount Polley did, and the consequences are irreversible.
Quesnel Lake is no longer the purest deepwater lake in the world. Instead it is tainted and will never be the same.
Will the landscape recover? Probably, eventually.
Will the Fraser River salmon runs survive the impact and will healthy salmon runs make their way back to Quesnel Lake, Horsefly, and Mitchell River again? Hopefully.
What about the confidence people have in mining companies and government? Time will tell. Right now people’s confidence is shattered. So what has to change?
“We need to know why the tailings facility failed,” Brian Kynoch told the people of Likely. “It will take a lot of time for the company to earn the people’s trust. We are going to do everything to clean it up once we know what has to be done.”
And, yes, the company’s confidence in its own abilities has been shaken.
“We need to know why it failed and convince ourselves we can build a tailings facility that won’t fail,” Kynoch concluded.
And what about government?
There’s a culture of deregulation that pervades government with less capacity for oversight. How did this contribute to the Mount Polley disaster? Is there a willingness by government to be more responsible?
Some people are calling for an independent public inquiry into the spill.
What about other tailings facilities in the region? Gibraltar Mine is pumping effluent from its tailings facility directly into the Fraser River to avoid a similar breach from happening, and is applying to double this volume.
What kind of scrutiny and monitoring of the effluent quality is there? How can people trust that it is being done properly?
These are just some of the questions that need to be answered, and now is the time to ask them
Sage Birchwater is a freelance writer based in Williams Lake. A resident of the Cariboo-Chilcotin Coast since 1973, he is the author of several books on local history and people of the region. Sage lived on a trapline in the Chilcotin for 10 years, worked in the field of cultural research and education in various First Nations communities, and has worked as a reporter for the Williams Lake Tribune and Coast Mountain News of Bella Coola.