By Sage Birchwater —
It’s been a long two months since August 4 when a breach of Mount Polley Mine’s tailings storage facility near Likely dumped 17 million cubic meters of effluent and eight million cubic meters of mine tailings solids into the pristine, salmon-bearing waters of Quesnel Lake.
In a matter of hours one of the deepest and purest freshwater lakes in the world became contaminated with mine waste that will likely be there forever. The trail of the breach left a 10-kilometre-long, 50-metre-wide toxic moonscape replacing Hazeltine Creek, once a one-metre-wide Coho spawning stream meandering through the interior rainforest.
Put at risk is the long-term viability of a quarter of the Fraser River’s Sockeye salmon that depend on the untainted water of Quesnel Lake for a nursery during the first year of their lives.
People in Likely were fearful and angry. Interior Health Authority immediately imposed a water-use ban on Quesnel Lake and Quesnel River, which most people in the community depend on for drinking, bathing, and recreation.
People up and down the Fraser River and throughout the province were also in shock. There was widespread outrage that one of the treasured jewels of “Super, Natural” British Columbia had been desecrated. People worried that the health of the Fraser River, full of spawning salmon at the time, was in jeopardy. There were other questions about mine safety and the ability of the provincial government to properly look after the public’s interests.
Despite detailed film footage of the devastation posted by the Cariboo Regional District, the scale of the breach and the immensity of the job to clean it up were difficult to comprehend.
Adding to the frustration were delays in the cleanup brought on by safety concerns. To the uninformed it seemed a simple matter of getting to work and hauling as much of the toxic mining sludge back into the tailings storage facility as soon as possible. There was an urgency to get it done before the fall rains washed more tailings into Quesnel Lake.
Engineers warned that a second breach was possible in Hazeltine Creek because the water level of Polley Lake, at its source, had risen two metres when the tailings dam burst and debris plugged the outlet of the lake. They said lives of people would be at risk if they were sent in to start cleaning up the Hazeltine drainage before Polley Lake was lowered.
On August 18 Energy & Mines Minister Bill Bennett announced that an independent panel of mining engineers would examine the Mount Polley breach and have a report to government by January 2015. He also ordered independent third-party reviews of the safety of all other mine tailings facilities in the province.
Two other investigations were also started that day. The Chief Inspector of Mines started his own investigation into Mount Polley, and the Conservation Officers Service began assessing the breach for violations under the Environmental Management Act.
On August 18, Kanahus Manuel of the Secwepemc Women Warriors Society lit her sacred fire at the foot of the road into Mount Polley Mine and set up an information camp there.
Kanahus has her own fight with Imperial Metals back in her home community of Neskonlith near Chase, where the company is proposing a zinc-lead mine at Ruddock Creek in the headwaters of the Adams River.
Kanahus pulls no punches in calling for a moratorium of mining in British Columbia. She said the purpose of the sacred fire was to gather grassroots information about the Mount Polley breach. “We need our own independent body to assess what’s going on,” she said.
Kanahus’s frustrations reflect a widespread distrust toward the government and the mining industry. During the first few weeks after the breach, many groups began taking their own water samples of Quesnel Lake and the tailings effluent.
Jacinda Mack, natural resources manager for Xat’sull First Nation, stresses the importance of becoming as informed as possible.
“Quesnel Lake is part of traditional Secwepemc territory that Xat’sull shares with T’exelc [Williams Lake Indian Band],” she says. “Lots of foods and medicines are not found anywhere else in our territory.”
After her initial shock and anger, Mack says she has cooled off a bit and is now focusing on solutions.
“Despite speculative talk that the mine had been doing nothing about the spill, this is not true,” she says. “Imperial Metals has been working 24 hours a day since the disaster occurred. They’ve been spending most of their time rebuilding the dikes within the tailings facility to ensure that more tailings aren’t released into the environment.”
Mack is at a loss for words to describe the immensity of the work ahead. She says a lot of people’s impatience and misunderstanding comes from not knowing how big an undertaking the cleanup will be.
“It’s so much bigger than you can even imagine. Rebuilding the tailings dam is a huge amount of work. Those haul trucks carry 250 tonnes of material in one load. One load dumps out and it looks like a tiny teaspoon full.”
Lori Halls, assistant deputy minister to the Minister of Environment, says the cleanup won’t happen overnight. “It won’t happen in weeks or months; it’s going to take years,” she says. “We’re in this for the long haul.”
Halls says the Ministry will be working with Mount Polley on phase one of the long-term monitoring and remediation plan from October to the end of June.
“After June the long phase plan will begin,” she says. “We need to find out what happened, why it happened, and what we can learn from it.”
With a dark cloud there is often a silver lining. The calamity at the Mount Polley may be the trigger to bring about long-anticipated changes to the Mining Act and mining-related regulations, and improved government-to-government relations with First Nations.
That’s the hope of Amy Crook, executive director of Fair Mining Collaborative, and a consultant with Xat’sull First Nation. She describes the agreements reached between Xat’sull and T’exelc and the provincial government since the spill as, “far-reaching” and “cutting edge.”
“Chiefs Bev Sellars and Anne Louie have negotiated a very tough agreement with the government that opens the door to government-to-government relations,” she says, adding that the province’s promise to do a large, comprehensive review of existing mining policy and regulations will hopefully result in changes to archaic mining laws.
“Out of a very disastrous situation some good can come from this,” she says.
Mack agrees. She says Xat’sull has developed a mining policy that contains all the highest mining standards in the world.
“It’s really good timing to be releasing our policy when mining reform will be looked at,” she says.
The province also agreed with Xat’sull having a liaison representative work with the independent panel assessing the Mount Polley breach.
“We hired Jim Kuipers, a mining engineer from Montana,” says Mack. “He will be our eyes and ears to scrutinize the work being done.”
Steve Robertson, vice-president of corporate affairs for Imperial Metals, says there are several investigations studying the breach at the same time.
“We were just counting it up the other day,” he says. “By the time all the investigations are done, Mount Polley Mine will be the most studied dam in Canadian history.”
According to Doug Gook, an environmental activist and former Green Party candidate in the Cariboo, that’s exactly how it should be.
“This has to be a model restoration project,” says Gook. “Damage has been done to an amazing pristine system that has no possibility of ever being that pristine again.”
Ramsey Hart of MiningWatch Canada, says it is important to keep up the pressure for a thorough cleanup and not let if fade from public attention.
“It’s hard to sustain media attention,” says Hart. “People need to continue asking questions and follow the work of the independent panel.”
And will Mount Polley Mine reopen any time soon?
“We have to wait and see what the regulatory regime says,” offers Cariboo Chilcotin MLA Donna Barnett. “It’s a huge, massive issue and you can’t just clean these things up overnight.”
Halls says she wouldn’t want to speculate when the mine might reopen.
“Certainly we need to know as part of the investigations why the breach happened,” she says. “We’re not going to know from the independent panel until the end of January at the earliest. You don’t want it to happen again.”
Sage Birchwater moved to the Cariboo-Chilcotin in 1973. He spends his time freelancing and authoring books, hanging out with his dog, gardening, and being part of the rich cultural life that is the Cariboo- Chilcotin Coast.