On August 4th the tailings impoundment at the Mount Polley mine failed, releasing 25 million cubic metres of mine waste and construction material into the watersheds below. Some of the waste backed up into Polley Lake, most of it was dumped into the 10km Hazeltine Creek watershed and some spread downstream into Quesnel Lake.
Investigations into the causes and legal implications of the spill are ongoing as is monitoring of the impacts. Preliminary water sampling results show increased levels of copper and other metals in the water column where a plume of fine sediments is moving with the currents in the lake. There is also concern over an increase in the E coli bacteria in water as residents used to draw drinking water straight from the lake. There are observations of increased algae and weed growth due to the fertilizing effect of phosphorus in the wastes. Researchers from the Quesnel River Research Centre have noted that the impacts of the spill may last decades.
Warnings and Red Flags
Speculation about the cause of the breach includes accusations that the there was too much water in the impoundment, and that the impoundment was not adequately buttressed as its height was increased. As we wait for the conclusion of the technical review and criminal investigations, information does show that there were a number of warnings and red flags raised about the impoundment in recent years. Whether or not the issues identified in the past are directly related to the spill or not, the response of the BC government to the issues at Mount Polley tells us a lot about how the system of oversight works in BC (and elsewhere in Canada). The situation at Mount Polley is typical of governments that want to maintain an open for business climate, and seek to promote compliance with environmental and engineering standards but do little to force companies into concrete action in a timely way.
Shortly after the spill, the CBC reported that the Ministry of the Environment issued five warnings to the company for failing to report issues with the tailings impoundment and for allowing higher water levels than was approved. These various issues resulted in warnings and advisories but no charges and no public disclosure of the problems.
Former mine employee Gerald McBurney was widely cited in the media criticizing the mine’s management and stating that buttressing needed to stabilize the dam for the volume of water that it was storing the mine had not completed. While McBurney indicates he raised concerns with the company it is not clear that he reported his concerns to the government oversight agencies. Another former employee, Larry Chambers, has stated that he was fired after raising safety concerns with the BC Mines Inspector.
The Vancouver Sun’s Gordon Hoekstra found a 2010 report on the tailings impoundment that is particularly troubling. The report noted a number of important failings of Imperial’s management of Mount Polley including:
• Not reporting a “tension crack” in the tailings dam to the design engineers.
• Not constructing the impoundment to specifications advised by the engineers
• Failing to deposit the tailings in a way that would create a “tailings beach” around the perimeter as a buffer between the pooled water and the impoundment walls.
• Not conducting the weekly inspections of drainage systems in the impoundment as committed to in their own Operations, Maintenance and Surveillance Manual.
• 40% of peizometers (small wells used to measure water level and pressure in the impoundment) were not operational, despite advice from 2006 to ensure a full compliment of working equipment.
After the 2010 report came to light Imperial issued a response noting that they had addressed many of these issues. What they don’t explain is why they operated for a number of years prior to them being addressed.
Responses to the Mount Polley spill from First Nations, NGOs and the public have appropriately included calls for increased inspections and improved regulations. While these are certainly necessary, to be effective they must also be accompanied by a change in the culture of how our governments deal with compliance and enforcement issues. Greater whistle-blower protection is also critical.
The Mount Polley case shows us that technical advice from engineers, operational commitments and even warnings and advisories from regulators are not sufficient for companies to implement changes in a timely way. Corporations must face much stronger financial penalties, and we need governments that are willing to impose them and that recognise we cannot be “open for business” at any cost.
Ramsay Hart is the Canada Program Coordinator for MiningWatch Canada.
Photo: Paulina Otylia