August 4 will mark the day, five years ago, when the tailings pond of the Mount Polley mine breached, dumping the equivalent of 10,000 Olympic-sized swimming pools-worth of copper and gold mining wastewater into nearby Quesnel Lake.
The remote, glacially fed lake – the deepest in BC and claimed to be the ninth deepest in the world – sits nearly centred and slightly east of a line drawn between Prince George and Kamloops. The lake is an important nursery for Pacific salmon and home to trophy-size rainbow trout, lake trout and Dolly Varden.
“Approximately four million salmon annually move through the Fraser River watershed, and 30% of those come from Quesnel Lake,” said Judith Pringle of the group Concerned Citizens of Quesnel Lake, in a webinar presentation in May.
Imperial Metals, the owner of Mount Polley mine, has faced no fines, no penalties, and no charges in connection with the disaster. On the contrary, Imperial Metals was granted a permit to forego a tailings dam altogether.
“In 2017 the Ministry of Environment (MOE) very quietly gave the mine a permit to build a pipeline from [their] treatment plant, taking all of their mine waste water directly into Quesnel Lake,” Pringle said.
The treatment plant feeding the pipeline removes sediment, nitrates, and phosphates. Not removed from the wastewater are possible contaminants such as copper, selenium, aluminum, iron, and lead, said Pringle.
Twin two-foot diameter pipes now discharge mine wastewater at a rate of up to 52 million litres per day.
“Other mines can remove copper and various other metals,” said Pringle. “It’s not a difficult process, it is not expensive, but the Ministry of Environment continues to treat Polley as a special case.”
Frustrated with the discharge permit, Concerned Citizens of Quesnel Lake recently launched an appeal of the MOE decision, and through the appeal process learned of a pattern of leniency by the MOE toward the Mount Polley mine.
The MOE has amended the mine’s water management plan several times when Mount Polley is unable or unwilling to meet environmental obligations, Pringle said.
Mine wants to dump copper legally
The latest amendment application by Mount Polley is to be exempt from having to remove copper (which is toxic to fish) from the wastewater, a process that the mine was required to have a plan for by April 2017, Pringle said.
The mine and MOE are on such good terms, Pringle has seen MOE and Mount Polley mine staff drawing samples to monitor drinking water together from the same boat.
“Once they discovered who we were, they weren’t particularly enamored with talking to us,” she said.
Pringle also called the water testing “inadequate,” with one area of the lake being tested three times over a year-and-a-half.
Blue-green algae blooms have been spotted on the water, and a section of the lake near the disaster no longer freezes over completely
Though the MOE deems the water safe to drink, “There is a great deal of uncertainty and fear about toxins in the water and the toxins salmon are carrying in their bodies,” said Tara Scurr, a campaigner for Amnesty International Canada, speaking at the webinar.
Before the disaster, locals’ water filters would last over a year. Now, they turn brown and need to be changed weekly. Blue-green algae blooms have been spotted on the water, and a section of the lake near the disaster no longer freezes over completely in winter, due to increased turbidity.
Cleanup from the disaster hasn’t been as burdensome as might be expected for Imperial Metals, thanks to the company being granted a third of cleanup spending in tax rebates, Scurr said.
“We also know they were getting a break on hydro payments to the tune of about a million dollars a month.”
“Right now these companies are being given the message that they can pretty much do whatever they want, and get away with it, and be rewarded,” Scurr said.
Sweeping reforms called for
Concerned Citizens of Quesnel Lake are part of the BC Mining Reform Network, a group of 30 environmental, Indigenous, and community groups calling for sweeping reforms of BC’s mining governance.
In a report released May 15 by the Network, the Mount Polley disaster and other “systemic failures” of BC’s mining regime, causing “devastating” impacts on wildlife and Indigenous cultures, are showcased as impetus for the reforms.
“Antiquated colonial thinking” still guides mining laws in BC, the report said, with mining companies and prospectors allowed to stake mining claims in environmentally sensitive areas, on private land without landowner permission, and in First Nations’ traditional territories without their free, prior, and informed consent.
The report also notes the $1 billion in mine cleanup that BC taxpayers are liable for under the current system.
“The time for reform is now – we cannot afford to wait while environmental and financial risks multiply,” said the report.
In nearly 70 policy recommendations, the report proposes overhauls in nine areas: environmental assessments; mineral tenures; Indigenous governance of mining; waste disposal and management; closure, reclamation, and abandoned mines; water protection; monitoring and enforcement; placer mining and enforcing a “polluter pays” model of mining liability.
Many of the changes aim to wrest control over mineral tenures and mining development from mining companies and instead grant communities, First Nations, and land owners authority over water, wildlife, and land use decisions.
Read the full report at www.reformbcmining.ca