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.
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
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.
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 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.
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.