At first, the morning of August 4th seemed like any other; I woke up in my new apartment, having only just moved to Vancouver from Prince George to begin my new job as a Fraser Riverkeeper. Checking the morning news, just like I did every other morning, a disturbing headline caught my eye: "Mount Polley Mine tailings pond breach called an environmental disaster". A dam holding back the tailings pond for Mount Polley Gold and Copper Mine had breached, sending as much as 80 million cubic meters of mining waste surging through Hazeltine Creek into Polley Lake and Quesnel Lake, a part of the Fraser watershed. The news sank into my gut like a stone; I knew that more than 70 million sockeye salmon were about to make their journey up the Fraser to spawn. I'd heard that it was believed up to a quarter of the Fraser River sockeye pass through Quesnel Lake on their way to their ancestral streams. How would this spill affect their ability to reach their home waters to spawn? I had to find out. Asking Lake Ontario Waterkeeper Mark Mattson for advice, he suggested that I should "think like a salmon". How would they encounter the spill? It was then that I decided I had to follow the Fraser sockeye's path upriver to learn more about this disaster at its source.
So, on August 16th, less than two weeks after the tailings pond breached, I made my way North with friends, photographer and graphic designer Anna Lindhout and her husband Chris, on an impromptu trip to Likely; a community that draws its water from Quesnel Lake and is the most directly affected by the disaster. On my way into town I bumped into fish biologist Alexandra Morton and members of the Soda Creek First Nation preparing to conduct sampling on the lake, suspicious of initial government announcements lifting the ban on consuming water and fish from Quesnel Lake (a ban that has since been reinstated in response to their findings). Wishing them well in their work, we continued down Likely Road to meet with researchers at UNBC's Dr. Max Blouw Quesnel River Research Centre, who could help me to get a handle on how the mining waste might be moving through the lake. How has the spill affected the watershed and the Fraser River salmon travelling through it? The answer to these questions is that it's simply too early to tell; and that, with a body of water as mysterious as Quesnel Lake, nothing can be 100% certain.
Quesnel Lake is the second deepest lake in Canada and the deepest fjord lake on Earth at a depth of between 500 and 600 meters (its true depth still remains unknown). It is home to unique water and sediment mixing properties that have puzzled researchers for more than a decade. Sediments flowing naturally into the lake from the Horsefly River and the Niagara River tend to mostly sink to the lake bottom at the point of entry rather than mixing with currents and flows. Similarly, most of the metal-laden tailings released by the breach that are still flowing into the lake at the mouth of Hazeltine Creek, have been sinking there and becoming trapped in the layer of cold water at the bottom of the lake, where they are likely to remain until the winter freeze-and-thaw will bring this deeper, colder water to the surface. When that happens, it's not entirely clear where the tailings will go; whether they'll settle back to the lake bottom or flow out of the lake and down the Quesnel River into the main body of the Fraser. With Quesnel Lake's mysterious nature, only time will tell; and the waiting game is an uneasy one.
As for how this disaster has affected the Fraser River sockeye on their way to the watershed the impacts are similarly difficult to determine, but the two-fold possibilities are no less worrisome. Firstly, when salmon hatch, they imprint on the scent of their home waters and rely on memory of this scent to guide them on their incredible journey from the sea back to their home stream to spawn. The introduction of the metal and mineral-laden sediment from the mining tailings disrupting the delicate chemical balance of the water could throw off the salmon's ability to lock on to the scent of their home waters, preventing them from reaching their home stream. Secondly, the toxic elements present in the tailings have a tendency to accumulate as they move up the food web, building up in the bodies of tiny organisms which are then eaten by juvenile salmon and other fish, poisoning them. Both of these scenarios are a source of serious concern for researchers, as well as local First Nations and Sports Fishermen who rely on a healthy, edible salmon population to put food on their tables. Sadly, it will take potentially years of sampling and monitoring to get an accurate picture of how these toxins are building up in the local fish populations or if they are interfering with the homing abilities of spawning salmon.
Leaving the Research Centre with a deeper understanding of the magnitude of this disaster and the troubling uncertainty as to what it will mean for the watershed moving forward, we passed the entrance to Mount Polley Mine where an encampment and checkpoint have since been established by members of the Secwepemc First Nation, lighting a Sacred Fire there on August 18th. Looking up at the mine's welcome sign, I couldn't help but feel a deep sense of irony at reading the slogan "Success With Safety!" written in big block letters across its bottom, half-obscured by the surrounding brush. How committed to safety could an operation that allowed this breach to occur actually be? Since the disaster it has been made abundantly clear that Imperial Metals, the company operating Mount Polley Mine, had been warned repeatedly that the dam holding back their tailings pond was being pushed far beyond its limit, that measures taken to reinforce the dam had been woefully inadequate; but yet they still continued to pour more and more sludge into the dangerously overloaded ponds, all the while operating without any insurance against environmental liability. In fact, with only a total of $15 million in property and liability insurance, there are serious concerns as to whether Imperial Metals will be able to afford the hundreds of millions of dollars it will take to clean-up what experts are already calling one of the worst tailings pond breaches in the world.
At 3:30 AM on April 25th 1998, a tailings pond at Aznalcollar Mine in Spain burst its banks, sending 5 million cubic meters of toxic mining waste into the River Guadiamar, the main water source for Donana national park, one of Europe's largest nature preserves and a Unesco World Heritage site. The spill cut a 30-kilometer swath of destruction through the park, destroying rare plants and wildlife as it went. The clean-up operation, which took 3 years, cost €240 million (CAN $347,750,000). Another tailings pond breach in Kingston, Tennessee, on December 22nd of 2008 that sent approximately 1 billion gallons of mining waste into surrounding lands and waterways resulted in clean up costs estimated at between US $600 million and $800 million. With costs like these, $15 million seems like a drop in the bucket in comparison.
Adding to the lingering questions as to Imperial Metals' ability to afford the cost of cleaning up this mess, or if such a task is even possible at all, are serious doubts as to the ability of our elected officials to force Imperial Metals to take responsibility for the breach. Bill Bennett, the Minister of Mines and Energy, has since announced two reviews in response to the public outrage over the disaster; the first an investigation by 3 independent experts looking into the failure of the tailings pond dam, and the second an independent review of all tailings pond facilities across BC. "We have a responsibility, as the jurisdiction where this failure took place, to find out exactly why it happened, ensure it never happens again and take a leadership role internationally in learning from this serious incident" said Bennett. In truth, with the dam breached and the damage done, these reviews amount to too little, too late; and mention of determining fault and holding those responsible to account is conspicuously absent from Bennett's statement. Since the disaster many have expressed anger towards Christy Clark's government and Bennett's own office, accusing them of promoting a culture of deregulation in the mining industry that is, at least, partially responsible for this disaster and pointing to the nearly half a million dollars in political contributions made to the BC Liberals by Imperial Metal's majority shareholder Murray Edwards as proof that Clark's government is far too friendly with the Mining Industry. But if we can't count on our government to force Imperial Metals to take responsibility for this disaster, then what can we do?
Rivers like the Fraser are mighty, able to move mountains and carve valleys through the landscape. They are made mighty by their many tributaries, many waters flowing from distant sources to become one. In this, I see the Fraser as representative of a strong community; a community united. Any harm done to the Quesnel River system is harm done to the members of our community who are dependent on those waters for their livelihood and way of life. As such, it is beholden on us, as a strong community, to unite in the face of adversity and make sure that those responsible are held to account. Working with local partners in the affected watershed and in the greater community of watershed and fisheries conservation groups across BC, I am hoping that Fraser Riverkeeper can take an active role in maintaining pressure on Imperial Metals to ensure that adequate independent monitoring and habitat rehabilitation being conducted by researchers and local First Nations in Polley Lake, Quesnel Lake, and the Quesnel River watershed receive the funding necessary to sustain their work over the long years ahead.
Fishable, swimmable, drinkable water is a right that belongs to us all. If we work together, we can protect that right for ourselves, our children, and generations to come. Click here to learn more about what our friends at Watershed Watch have been doing to help. For more information on UNBC's Max Blouw Quesnel River Research Centre, click here. Finally, don't forget to follow us on Twitter @FraserRivKeeper to keep up to date on the work Fraser Riverkeeper has been doing.