By Ed Mankelow
The Tailings Dam breach at the Mount Polley Mine is likely the worst mining disaster that this province has seen and it could be getting worse. If the salmon and trout stocks of Quesnel Lake are impacted on their spawning journey to Quesnel Lake and feeder streams, then not only this year’s run but the runs from this year’s spawning of salmon and trout could be lost.
There are abandoned mines in BC and this is especially true with copper mines that have gone acid and leaked into rivers and lakes for years. An example would be the possible reopening of the Tulsequah Chief mine on the Iskut river and the Johnny Mountain mine. The latest mine approved by government, Red Chris, has in the Environmental Assessments Final Report a statement that on closure, the tailing pile would likely turn acid and would have to be treated in perpetuity.
On Mount Polley mine, one of the concerns is the issue of Hazeltine Creek. The massive tailings flow widened the creek to ten times its size, so when the creek returned to its usual size, a massive area of tailings will be left containing heavy metals.
While the news is that the water in Quesnel Lake is safe to drink, this is preliminary and taken soon after the release. If there is any danger of sulphides anywhere along the creek, then the area could become acid. Mines can become acid over many years and acid mine drainage is known as a “forever problem”.
From the evidence before us, this dam failure did not have to happen. While Imperial Metals must take responsibly for the ultimate dam failure, a host of government failures contributed to this mining disaster. The lack of clear responsibilities. A lack of inspection and monitoring by government branches. Allowing companies to be self-regulating. A lack of adequate budgeting and staffing, which would enable those who should be responsible to do their job.
The 2011 Auditor General report, “The Environmental Assessment Office’s Oversight of Certified Projects”, clearly documents that this is not happening. As Auditor General John Doyle noted:
[quote]Adequate monitoring and enforcement of certified projects is not occurring and follow up evaluations are not conducted. We also found that information currently provided to the public is not sufficient to ensure accountability.[/quote]
In its Feb 10, 2011 report, “The problems with BC mining regulations”, the University of Victoria’s Environmental Law Centre noted the EAO’s lack of field presence coupled with its lack of a viable compliance and enforcement strategy are further challenges.
To the effective enforcement of provincial EA conditions, moreover – although the 2009 EAO user Guide provides that inspections may be undertaken where appropriate – government staff report successive budget cuts have had significant impacts on their enforcement capabilities and they do not consider the enforcement of EA certificates to be within their mandate.
While we are being told by the minister that Imperial Metals applied for an adjustment to their certificate to lower the water level in their tailings pond and it brought them into compliance, it certainly did not solve the issue. We are told by the former tailings pond foreman that he consistently warned the mine managers that their were problems with the height of the dam walls and the amount of water. He was ignored and finally quit.
Also, an environmental consultant hired by the company warned them of the issues on the dam and recommended that they bring in an engineer to inspect the dam. This they refused to do. The company that designed the tailing pond also talked of warning the company.
There are too many questions unanswered, too many allegations of government and company ignoring concerns. The only way to resolve this issue and arrive at the truth is to have a full judicial inquiry where people testify under oath. A joint review enquiry being suggested will not bring out the truth.
The public should demand a full judicial inquiry.
Past Chair – Environmental Mining Council of BC
Member – Advisory Council on Mining