Mount Polley Tailings Pond Breach
Looking at the pictures in the news this week of the environmental disaster that took place in central BC takes your breath away. I felt it was important to write a detailed review of what we know now and what questions need to be asked going forward. I will provide as much information I can as things develop.
In the early morning of Monday, August 4th 2014, a 4km long tailings pond located at the Mount Polley gold and copper mine (located in central British Columbia) breached its earthen dam, and left a 45-metre wide track of muck running into the nearby lake near Likely, BC. The mine and tailings pond is owned and operated by Imperial Metals Corporation. In a press release on August 5th 2014, the company said the cause of the breach is unknown at this time, and the structure (which was independently built) was operated within the parameters given to the company, as regulated by the Ministry of Energy and Mines.
A state of emergency was declared for the Cariboo region in the morning of August 6th.
The breach released ~10 billion litres of water and 4.5 million cubic metres of silt into Polley Lake prompting drinking water warnings for Quesnel Lake, Polley Lake, Hazeltine Creek, Cariboo Creek and the Quesnel River up to its intersection with the Fraser River.
In an FAQ on tailings pond, CBC says that:
“The substances found in tailings ponds depend on the type of mining operation. Last year, Imperial Metals Corp. reported that tailings from its Mount Polley copper-gold mine contained thousands of tonnes of copper, zinc, phosphorus and managanese along with:
A science and policy advisor for the David Suzuki Foundation says that the most hazardous heavy metals to human and environmental health are arsenic, cadmium, copper, lead and mercury.
The breach appeared to catch the president of Imperial Metals by surprise, as he denied any indication that the dam would burst. In a town hall, Brian Kynoch said “if you asked me two weeks ago if it could happen, I would have said it couldn’t.”
However, this dam has been the subject of at least one review commissioned by the Williams Lake First Nation and Imperial Metals in 2009 and published in 2011. In the report, Brian Olding, operator of Brian Olding and Associates Ltd. (the environmental consultant that was retained for the report), said the tailings pond was accumulating water so quickly that it would have needed to discharge about 1.4 million cubic metres of water a year to keep its levels stable. This would require the dam to find a sustainable means of discharging water to prevent excessive build up. Oldings assessment found the pond levels were already getting too high five years ago.
In 2012, the government granted the permit amendment that Imperial Mines had requested, allowing it to discharge 1.4 million cubic meters of wastewater per year into Hazeltine Creek. The second permit amendment, submitted this summer, was under consideration by the ministry at the time of the tailings pond breach.
The report was also critical of the company for not having a contingency plan in case of a tailings pond failure. I do not know whether such a plan was developed in the period between the report being submitted to the company and government, and the accident on Monday. It is also worth noting that Olding says no analysis of the dam’s structural integrity was conducted, despite his request that a structural engineering company be retained.
An initial CBC investigation into the accident also provided a detailed review of the BC Government’s interactions with the Mount. Polley Mine.
In the article, the BC Ministry of Environment claims that they warned Imperial Metals about the Mount Polley mine tailings pond levels repeatedly before the breach.
In an email to CBC News, a Ministry of Environment spokesperson said it gave the firm its latest of five warnings in May, this time for exceeding the permitted height of wastewater within the tailings pond. However these warnings may have been given over the course of many years, referring to different incidences and violations.
The first of these, in 2009, prompted the independent report referred to above.
The CBC article went on to report that the B.C. Ministry of Environment reported conducting 14 inspections of the Mount Polley mine since the permit amendment was granted. On one of these inspections, that took place in August 2012, the ministry found the mine failed to report the excessive height of wastewater for the perimeter pond. The pond subsequently overflowed, releasing ~150 cubic meters of wastewater over 13 hours.
In April of this year, the ministry found the mine experienced high flows due to spring runoff, which blocked the pump system, resulting in an overflow, for which an advisory was issued. In this case the water did not reach the creek.
Finally, three months ago the ministry warned Imperial Metals yet again, after the height of wastewater in the tailings pond exceeded authorized levels.
According to the ministry, the wastewater level eventually returned to normal one month later.
In summer 2014, the firm applied to amend its permit again, this time to allow a discharge of 3 million cubic metres of treated wastewater or ditch water into Polley Lake, which overflows into Hazeltine Creek.
At least one journalist is pointing out that although the initial reaction is to blame the company, “the buck really stops with the province”, which is responsible for the regulatory culture in the province.
Stephen Hume notes that accidents like this (although not to this scale) have been happening repeatedly. In his article he cites a warning given in 2012 by The University of Victoria’s Environmental Law Centre, which noted that environmental assessment certificates for mines issued by government are often “vague and unenforceable.” Furthermore, it said that by 2008 the number of mine inspections had fallen to half what they were in 2001 and Ministry of Environment staff shrank by 25 per cent.
This is an accident that should not have happened. The warning signs were there, and yet no action took place. How many warnings must the government issue to a company before more significant action is taken? We need to ensure that the government has the necessary regulatory teeth and resources to act to prevent disasters such as the one that occurred at Mount Polley.
Going forward, we need to ensure that our first priority is that the health and well being of those affected is being looked after. This needs to include ensuring that the short term financial needs of local communities including First Nations are met, as many people find themselves without an income, and with new costs.
From the government’s side, we are still waiting for their report on the water quality in the area. In the government’s press release, the Ministry of Environment said it was on-site conducting water tests to determine the full extent of potential environmental impacts. Water sampling took place the evening of August 4th with samples having been sent for analysis, and results expected later this week. I have called on the Minister of Environment to consider independent testing to reassure local residents and those potentially affected downstream that the information is complete and impartial.
Following this, we need to start addressing how clean up of this disaster will occur, including short and long term mitigation of impacts on humans and the environment.
I will be working hard on this issue in the weeks and months that follow. At the moment I have a number of questions that I will be seeking answers to, including:
1) What support is government offering to local communities including local First Nations to help fund this period of transition?
2) Will there be any impacts on the Fraser River salmon run?
3) What is the best practice in cleaning up a tailings pond spill, especially given the limited number of incidences in BC that this has happened (at this time Minister Bennett is saying this has never happened before in the province)?
4) What contingency plans exist in government to help support its efforts financially to address this disaster, including if Imperial Metals declares we’re unable to pay for the cleanup?
5) What role has the government’s cuts to enforcement and their approach to enforcement played in causing this accident?
6) Are there other tailings ponds that should be red flagged?
Please don’t hesitate to contact my office if you have any questions.