This Tuesday marked one year since the failure of the tailing storage facility at Mount Polley gold and copper mine in the early hours of August 4th, 2014, dumped billions of litres of waste water and mining slurry into the Quesnel River watershed; resulting in what has been called the worst mining disaster in modern Canadian history. The timing could not have been worse: a record run of 72 million sockeye salmon were expected for the Fraser River that season, with as much of a quarter of those fish heading straight for the impacted watershed.
While a review by an independent panel of engineers determined that the root cause of the failure of Mount Polley's tailing storage facility (TSF) was a layer of previously undetected glacial clay beneath its foundation which compromised its structural integrity, details that have come to light in the months since the disaster indicate that gaps in mine inspections stemming from budget cuts and understaffing at the Ministry of Energy and Mines, as well as a general failure on the part of the mine's owners, Imperial Metals Corporation, to adequately maintain the TSF and manage wastewater on-site almost certainly contributed to the disaster.
A full year has passed and still no criminal charges have been laid in response to the Mount Polley disaster, nor has the BC Ministry of Energy and Mines fully implemented the independent engineering panel's seven recommendations. An investigation by the BC conservation officer's service, which saw raids on Mount Polley and Imperial Metals' offices executed in February, remains on-going. Meanwhile, rather than pushing for accountability or a change in mining practices in the wake of the largest TSF failure on Earth, the BC government chose to approve a permit for limited restart at Mount Polley mine on July 9th, less than a year after the disaster, despite the concerns of First Nations and local residents.
Phase I Complete!
Just last week, on July 29th, the BC Ministry of the Environment announced that phase I of the Mount Polley Environmental Remediation and Mitigation Plan had been completed. A progress report issued by the Ministry outlines the remediation work that has been completed to date; including the removal of woody debris from Quesnel Lake, the construction of settling ponds and extensive erosion control work in Hazeltine Creek, and the pumping of all contact water to Springer Pit in accordance with the mine's permit for limited restart.
But, as always, the devil is in the details. In addition to laying out the work that has been completed, the report also points out that a considerable amount of work remains either undone or outstanding. Human health and ecological risk assessments, a clear outline of the extent of the mine affected materials and sediment in the environment, even achieving Provincial aquatic life and drinking water guideline levels at certain sampling locations in Quesnel Lake, are all listed as either incomplete or requiring on-going work into the second phase of remediation.
Indeed, while the fanfare surrounding the completion of phase I might give the impression that the Quesnel watershed is well on its way to recovery in the wake of the Mount Polley disaster, what it really represents is the end of work to mitigate erosion and control the flow of water through the disaster site following the 2015 spring freshet. In truth, most of the work to restore Hazeltine Creek, Polley Lake, and Quesnel Lake to their pre-disaster states has yet to begin; while the ecological impacts of the released mine tailings on the watershed will take years of careful research and monitoring to fully grasp.
Who Will Be Left Holding the Bag?
Remediating and mitigating the impacts of the Mount Polley disaster has already cost Imperial Metals close to $67 million, the Province of BC $6 million, and this is only scratching the surface. With the value of Imperial Metals' stock falling by 40% since the disaster and the very real threat of criminal charges and multi-million-dollar litigation in the not-so-distant future, serious questions remain as to the ability of Imperial Metals to continue funding clean-up efforts and the perpetual care of the Mount Polley site once operations have completed. Should the company prove incapable of footing the bill, the onus will fall squarely on the BC taxpayer to cover the untold cost of cleaning up their mess.
BC residents shouldn't have to pay for the mistakes of extractive industries. As we mark the first anniversary of the Mount Polley disaster, let's remind the BC government of their year's worth of commitments to improve the state of mining in our province and call upon them to make good on their promises.
Let's remember Mount Polley and pledge to never forget.