Mount Polley investigation: Whitewash follows tailings flood – culprits let off the hook

Aerial image after Mount Polley mine tailings spill (Cariboo Regional District)
Aerial image after Mount Polley mine tailings spill (Cariboo Regional District)

The recently concluded “independent” investigation into the Mount Polley tailings pond rupture essentially exonerates the various culprits in what was likely the worst environmental catastrophe in BC history. The report can only be seen as a whitewashing of the world record 25 million cubic metres of mine tailings and other debris swept into Hazeltine Creek and the formerly pristine Quesnel Lake this past August.

Designing disaster

While the government-appointed panel behind the investigation acknowledges a design flaw in the  containment facility, it downplays any real human negligence by attributing it to misinterpretation of the geology below the breached dam wall:

[quote]The design did not take into account the complexity of the sub-glacial and pre-glacial geological environment associated with the perimeter embankment foundation[/quote]

Yet the report curiously maintains such a design flaw can occur without human error in the design process or subsequent construction, finding:

[quote]…no evidence that the failure was due to human intervention or overtopping of the perimeter embankments…In regard to regulatory oversight, the Panel found that inspections of the tailings storage facility would not have prevented failure. [/quote]

Thus both the builders and the regulators are magically let off the hook.

Alternate report alleges cover-up

Suzuki: Canada at risk for more Mount Polley-type disasters
Hazeltine Creek after tailings dam breach (Chris Blake)

Quite to the contrary, another report, by the BC Tapwater Alliance last December, marshals credible evidence to lay blame at the feet of the BC Liberal Government, mine owner Imperial Metals and the engineer of record, Knight Piesold. It concludes, “the Mount Polley mine tailings storage catastrophe could have been, and should have been, preventable,” equating subsequent denials of culpability to a “cover-up”.

And that should stand to reason. The mere notion of “design” implies human agency. Someone had to conduct the geological studies, interpret the data, and incorporate that into the engineering of the facility; just as human regulators were responsible for overseeing this process and verifying its implementation and evolving risks over the lifetime of the project. How one can attribute flaws to the design process but not to the people, companies and governments behind it is simply baffling.

What the panel’s report left out

The panel’s report also ignores some of the key political and regulatory plot points in the Mount Polley tragedy.

For instance, the half million dollars in campaign contributions and big-time fundraising support the Liberal government received from mine owner Murray Edwards and his companies, including Mount Polley Mining and Imperial Metals. In the aftermath of the disaster, Minister of Energy and Mines Bill Bennett threatened a fine of – wait for it – one million dollars! Not a peep on this clear conflict of interest.

Then there were the numerous warnings from the outset that the type of design used for the dam was a bad fit for a wet climate (p.ES-6).

Or the fact that Engineer of Record Knight Piesold acknowledged Imperial “failed to comply with some of its duties/responsibilities over the [tailings storage facility] during the ‘Care and Maintenance’ years, the three and half year period when the Mount Polley mine was temporarily shut down from October 2001 to March 2005,” as the BC Tapwater Alliance report notes. This also could have helped weaken the containment structure.

Or how about the dangerous ramping up of production at Mount Polley to boost profits as Imperial sought to build another mine (with similar tailings pond design concerns) in northwest BC, Red Chris. This, of course, was sanctioned by the government, even though it meant overloading the containment facility with more tailings and water than it was designed to hold.

Or the numerous annual reports Imperial neglected to file with the ministry (p. ES-4), in contravention of the terms of its permits.

Mount Polley disaster- More misinformation than facts
The wide of a Mount Polley whistleblower, Lawna Bourassa displays cloudy water vollected near her Quesnel Lake home (Damien Gillis)

Or cut-backs in mine inspections and the transfer of this process away from independent ministry officials to contractors hired by the company – a clear conflict of interest. A 2012 study by the UVic Environmental Law Centre warned, “This ramshackle enforcement regime is not good enough for an industry that can create environmental and financial catastrophes.” Ignored.

Or the critical “deficiency” unearthed by ministry officials during a 2008 geotechnical inspection of the dam.

Or the mysterious departure of Knight Piesold from the project in 2011, amid warnings from independent consultant Brian Olding that dam was in danger of collapse.

Or the multiple, internal warnings from employees, like foreman-turned-whistleblower Gerald MacBurney and truck operator Larry Chambers. All ignored.

Or Imperial Metals’ lack of environmental disaster insurance and sufficient plans and resources to clean up the spill.

I could go on…But you won’t learn any of the above issues from the “independent” panel’s report.

Sure, there are vague calls to “improve professional practice” and “strengthen current regulatory operations”, but they lack teeth and fail to capture the gravity of the situation.

Nothing learned

Beyond the absence of justice for this ongoing travesty – which continues to pollute Hazeltine Creek and the former natural marvel called Quesnel Lake – the panel’s effort represents a failure to learn anything meaningful that would prevent governments and industry from making the same mistakes in the future.

Then again, none of this comes as a surprise. Ever since the wee hours of BC day this past August, when the levee broke, there’s been as much spin, obfuscation and excuse-making gushing out of  Mount Polley as toxic mine tailings. If the public accepts this whitewash, then we risk another Mount Polley – perhaps up at Imperial’s latest venture, Red Chris Mine, which could pollute the Sacred Headwaters of three major salmon rivers.

It’s hard to know where to go from here – the whole thing is such a mess – but we can start by rejecting this report and demanding real answers and justice for an entirely preventable disaster.


About Damien Gillis

Damien Gillis is a Vancouver-based documentary filmmaker with a focus on environmental and social justice issues - especially relating to water, energy, and saving Canada's wild salmon - working with many environmental organizations in BC and around the world. He is the co-founder, along with Rafe Mair, of The Common Sense Canadian, and a board member of both the BC Environmental Network and the Haig-Brown Institute.

23 thoughts on “Mount Polley investigation: Whitewash follows tailings flood – culprits let off the hook

  1. I’m down here in Australia and ashamed to admit I’m from BC! No one here believes a word of this – they accuse me of fabricating this story!

    It’s getting pretty difficult to make excuses!

  2. Great article Damien!! Once again you’ve brought some truth and solid facts to the forefront. Christy Clark is scrambling for ground as the announcement for search warrants come down and the search yields “missing documents”. The next warrants issued should be for the offices of both Bill Bennett and Christy Clark. How many more documents will be “missing” from their files. It all comes down to the irresponsibility of all parties. The BC government for lack of over sight and inspections, and Imperial Metals for over filling the pond and ignoring reports of problems. That being said, we’re still left with a clean up of gargantuan proportions, if at all possible. the damage to this lake is impossible to assess, but other industrial disasters on a much smaller scale have left “dead lakes and waterways” in their wake. Once again, our environment is sacrificed for the imaginary legacy Christy Clark craves. Great reporting Damien, looking forward to more of the same.

    1. Thanks Cobb. Two different investigations – one being the govt-appointed panel’s whitewash and the other being a joint RCMP-DFO investigation that looks to have some serious teeth to it. That would be a refreshing change. Will be interesting to see how this one pans out.

  3. Imperial Metal says there is not enough money for a complete cleanup. yet the have a $500000for the coffers of Christy Clark. she should either return the money or use it strictly for the clean up of this disaster. Or else we the public have to believe the $500000 is just a bribe to keep the culprits out of jail. Viva la Mexico

  4. Anyone with half a brain can look at the picture above and see that the dam breached from the top down. The lower portion is still basically intact compared to the top section. It was obvious from the start that no one was going to be charged significantly for this incident. Now they can start filling it again, what a joke.

  5. bottom line is,,smoking gun or no smoking gun,if i put a leaky roof on your house,and i decide it s safe,then it leaks,,,im on the hook,,,these companies are liable and should be held accountable,,arguing over he said she said,what terms were phrased,whitewash bullshit,these people,the industries are are killing our ecosystem,our enviroment ,,,our river start s drying up in the summer,as i read on through the summer,water levels continue to decrease,i never knew the local pulp mill was in charge of the decision to open the weir ,wow,we cant water our lawn but they can poison up 50 000 000 gallons of water a day,even the old guy s that work there said they wouldnt drink the water after purification and filtration process was done,just an example of what these place s are doing,the damage is beyond repair,all these factories,mills,plant s.they have control over our enviroment,to many payoff s to our crimminal politition s,corporate s buying what belong s to all of us, and the few that get the payoff s while we get to suffer our health,our children s future,lolololol

  6. It breaks my heart how these mining companies externalize their costs to our precious environment and to the people of BC, with no penalties. A million dollars is a pittance. I fear for the health of the ecosystem in the coming years.

  7. Well I think that the fact that the mine owners contributed $500k to the liberal reelection campaign just about sums up where this “investigation” was headed.

    “Nothing to see here, move along…..”

    The govt and industry are rotten to the core.
    Corrupt, dysfunctional, and above the law.

    A lot of voters are very very angry these days.

  8. Gillis, you sound like a 12 year old girl having a temper tantrum .

    “That’s not the answer I wanted!!!, the government and Imperial Metals totally vindicated!!…it can’t be!!!. It all comes down to Knight Piesold under estimating the strength of a clay layer below the dam….that’s it?…no smoking gun……WAA WAA WAA“

    I can just see you laying face down on the floor, pounding the floor with your fists…WAA WAA WAA

    You were totally wrong….get over it!

    1. Wow, Dave. Talk about temper tantrums 😉

      All I did was juxtapose some pertinent information with what the “independent” panel found. If you can’t handle that kind of mature discussion, then maybe you need a time-out 😉 LOL

      1. David, I think that the gist of the “report” into Mt Polley is the fact that they lay the blame on no-one……
        No one is responsible?
        When the mining company was sighted for lack of annual reports, lack of insurance, lack of concern for repeated warnings from engineers and their own employees.
        Lets face it.
        After allllll that. This report names no one for failure of responsibility.
        Well, it took 7 years and a lot of money but the Crew on the bridge of the Queen of the North were proven to be crimnally responsible…….
        Lets see how this plays out shall we?
        Now go sit in a corner, no plumb pudding for you.

        1. Hmmmmmm, The police raided Imperial Metals today??
          Didnt think this would happen quite this fast.

    2. “You were totally wrong…get over it”? Gee, Dave, that’s pretty hard-hitting rebuttal. You sorta missed about 95% of the article.

      I think there are two options here –(a) you can’t read or (b) you’re a mining company stooge. Either way, your “response” is a useless piece of garbage. Waa waa waa to you.

  9. Another slap in the face Canadian concerned about the environment issues and the no pentaltys for corporate polluters the rest of us must obey environmental laws such as water craft regulation, recycling everything e test vechile smart meters eco friendly house hold products,on I could go they wanted a new tailing pond they got one. Canadian don’t own the water government does and it will do as they please the rest of us go to work pay your taxes and shut up because if you oppose well there is a law against freedom of speech.

    1. …..and dont forget we have to divert the food from our garbage headed to the LAND FILL even when the rat population in the Lower Mainland is exploding……..because this makes us feel better about ourselves.

    1. Yes it was over height and they were granted a permit to make it higher???? So that says the government had looked at the wall and “assumed ” it was good , so much for assuming,its all fixed ,their inspections are a sham!

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