By Venta Rutkauskas –
Today, I write to remember August 4, 2014 and the mining disaster that took place in my backyard. I write in honour of the beautiful and sacred Quesnel Lake watershed, its Indigenous peoples, and the community of humans, plants, and animals that call it home. I reflect on the four years passed. Life changed dramatically for my family. Here is a small part of our story. It is, at its heart, a love story. Love of a land, love of a family, and the love a man can put into his work.
As word of the disaster spread, my long-time partner-in-crime, Gabriel Holmes, our daughter Najma, and I were enjoying the afterglow of my cousin’s beautiful California wedding, visiting with our extended family. Slowly, waves of social media and news reports hit us, and the severity and scope of the breach grew. Our spirits sank, and we prepared for the journey back to BC. Hearts broken, we arrived at our home near Likely, BC a few days later, in time to attend a ceremony held in honour of Quesnel Lake. A day after that, Gabriel returned to work, and he didn’t stop for months.
Gabriel has lived in and around Likely all his life. He is intimate with the ecosystems here, having played and camped in them as a boy, then planting trees and working in silviculture in the region when he joined the work force. In 2012, as the birth of our first child approached, Gabriel decided a steadier job might benefit our little family, and he joined the environmental department at Mount Polley.
Gabriel mourned the damage done to the lake and environment he cherished. He holds a deep reverence for this place. “I remember thinking, this [breach] is a worst-case scenario for a mine site,” he recalls. “It felt devastating, actually.”
It wasn’t an easy choice working for the company responsible for one of the worst mining disasters in Canadian history. Nevertheless, he did. He worked hard for the place he loved.
“The site seemed crazy,” Gabriel remembers of those first months. “I had a firsthand view of the force of that tailings spill, carving out canyons, ripping out forests. And the worst mud you’ve ever seen.”
An intensive monitoring program began, with Gabriel and others in the environmental department at Mount Polley joining the BC Ministry scientists and specialists contracted by the mine. They needed to characterize the water and the tailings and understand what was happening to the surrounding ecosystems. Concurrently, heavy machinery plugged up the dam and began to construct a large, nearly 9 km engineered channel (channel armouring) where the path of Hazeltine Creek had been. The channel’s structure stabilized the site and prevented further erosion and turbidity entering Quesnel Lake. Its design would lay the foundation for the rehabilitation of the creek habitat in the future.
Over the years, I have passed through Lower Hazeltine, via the Ditch Road, to survey the damage, to pray, to explore. Each time, I see the dedication Gabriel has put into the site. After the intense monitoring period in 2014 and early 2015, Gabriel was able to focus more on ongoing rehabilitation of the terrestrial landscapes. This included upland areas, shoreline habitat, plant communities, denning and perching habitat, and the lower floodplain along the 9 km stretch of Hazeltine Creek.
The Habitat Objectives Working Group, which included representatives from Mount Polley, its contractors, local Indigenous bands, and Ministry representatives, set out guidelines and outlined priorities for fish habitat, water quality, velocity and slope, channel size, and the effects on the surrounding environment. In the process, the company removed massive amounts of tailings, sometimes almost 4 m deep, down to native soils from most of the disturbed areas, and re-contoured the landscape, which included mounding and ripping, both of which mitigate erosion. Gabriel had been implementing grass and tree planting programs every spring and autumn, while natural ingress of local species had also begun. Eventually, in 2016, the company was able to commence creek bed remediation in the first reaches of Hazeltine Creek adjacent to the tailings dam.
In May of this year, I toured this area with Gabriel and our daughter, as the company had recently opened 2.6 km of rehabilitated creek to the resident fish populations of Polley Lake. I had heard so much from Gabriel about his work, but I was nervous to see the place that had once been thick forest. My daughter, who is almost six now, ran through the floodplain with her dad, amazed and delighted by spawning trout and long-nose suckers that amassed in each pool. Toads, eagles, squirrels, osprey, and several perching birds were present, while several areas of the landscape had re-greened with sedges, cattails, and small shrubs.
“There were more fish than I expected,” Gabriel remarked. “Every pool had hundreds of fish in it.” Monitoring of the thousands of spawning fish and their fry show that there is an abundance of healthy fish entering the ecosystem, some fry already heading back to Polley Lake to rear. The place was teeming with life. The months since that time, I’ve shared my impressions with several individuals, honouring Gabriel for the dedication and effort he’s contributed to this landscape. I want people to know that there is someone knowledgeable and compassionate in the ranks devoted to seeing this through.
“The site is a work in progress,” Gabriel admits. “Succession is evident all over, especially in the areas we’ve focused on. There is a natural resiliency built into every ecosystem, and if we can harness this impulse to resilience, the sites will continue to re-grow. I’m pretty pleased with where the situation is right now,” Gabriel adds.
I know there are still many unanswered concerns around this subject. If you are curious about the work on Mount Polley’s reclamation program, I encourage you to take a tour of the site, ask questions, and explore the information available online. This is such a complex situation, truly devastating and unique. It’s for the love of this place that I share my experiences with you.
Venta Rutkauskas is a writer and healer who has made her home in the beautiful Cariboo for over a decade. Her work involves the Arts and the ways nature intersects with soul.