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Imperial Metals Mount Polley Mine Tailings Dam Failure: A First-Hand Look

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By Bonnie Gestring

October 22, 2014

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On the two month anniversary of the Imperial Metals Mount Polley Mine tailings dam failure, I travelled with colleagues from Bristol Bay, Alaska to see the area first-hand. At the hospitality of the Northern Shuswap Fisheries Department, we travelled by boat across Quesnel Lake to see the mouth of Hazeltine Creek where the tailings spill emptied into the lake. Despite two months of cleanup, the mouth is still choked with massive trees that were carried downstream by the powerful force of the tailings breach, which transformed a small salmon stream into a broad corridor piled with mine waste.

“In a matter of a few hours, the watershed was affected at an extent never before seen, and that will possibly last for decades,” said University of Northern B.C. professor Phil Owens in a Vancouver Sun interview on October 8, 2014.

Altogether, an estimated 25 million cubic meters of tailings and wastewater were released, backing up into Polley Lake, flowing down through 10 km of Hazeltine Creek, and emptying into Quesnel Lake. Research has just begun on the effects of the tailings spill on Lake Quesnel. The day we arrived, the Quesnel River Research Center was releasing some of its initial findings. Their research shows a sediment plume extending over an area many tens of square kilometers, and moving up the lake towards the town of Likely, and down the lake past Cariboo Island. Quesnel Lake is an important migratory route for spawning Sockeye salmon from the Fraser River. The murky water was obvious on the day we traveled across the lake.

The mine is in the center of the Xat’ sull First Nation and Williams Lake Indian Band Territorial lands, and their concern for the salmon and other renewable resources is clear in this interview with Chief Bev Sellars and Mining Response Coordinator, Jacinda Mack.

There’s no shortage of questions about why the spill occurred, and why the B.C. and federal regulatory program failed to identify the hazard before it happened. The Globe and Mail reports that a cut in funding resulted in a significant reduction in inspections, and it appears that no inspections occurred at Imperial Metals Mount Polley Mine in 2010 and 2011. The Province has announced an independent engineering review to investigate the cause of the failure, with a report due at the end of January 2015. As a result of their ongoing-negotiations with the province, Xat’sull First Nation and Williams Lake Indian Band will have their own expert engineer involved.

Clean-up activities are underway, primarily focused on the immediate threat of fixing the hole in the tailings dam, and reducing water in Polley Lake to avoid another catastrophic event if the “plug” that’s formed at the mouth of the lake gives way. The primary focus in the coming months is to create a series of collection pools along Hazeltine Creek to settle out the solids in the tailings before it continues downstream. Under the BC Emergency Program Act, much of the area is restricted from access (see photo). While we were there, there were a number of boats moving forest debris from the mouth of Hazeltine Creek to the shore of Quesnel Lake.

While there continues to be many unanswered questions at Imperial Metals Mount Polley Mine site, one thing was clear. For my colleagues from Bristol Bay and I, the trip to Mount Polley reinforced our opposition to the proposed Pebble Mine, which at full size would contain nearly 100 times the volume of tailings as that at Mount Polley. The EPA is scheduled to make a decision about restrictions on mine waste disposal from Pebble by February 2014. The Imperial Metals Mount Polley Mine site is yet another reason why the EPA should restrict mine waste disposal from the Pebble Mine once and for all.

Tagged with: tailings dam, tailings, mining, canada

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