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Mount Polley: the spill in the news

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mount polley

Such a flood of articles on this (pun intended…groan). But next year, if I want to check something for follow-up, I’m sure I’ll forget something key – so here’s a bit of a guide to what’s out there now (it’s a bit rough, I’ll embed the links later).

Most time sensitive, first: there’s a protest this Monday Aug 11, 2pm, in front of the Public Library, for those interested. https://www.facebook.com/events/260950577431672/?ref_newsfeed_story_type=regular

What we know: the tailings pond dam at the Mount Folley mine failed, and parts of the contents (contaminated sediment and water) have contaminated the environment.
The situation is described in http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/british-columbia/mount-polley-mine-tailings-pond-breach-called-environmental-disaster-1.2727171. CBC produced background pieces explaining what are tailings, what happens over time, and what contaminants the tailings pond at Mount Polley holds: http://www.cbc.ca/news/technology/tailings-ponds-for-mining-and-oilsands-waste-faqs-1.2727889 ; http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/british-columbia/tailings-pond-spill-what-happens-to-effluent-over-time-1.2729751. Andrew Weaver put together an excellent synopsis at http://www.andrewweavermla.ca/2014/08/06/mount-polley-tailings-pond-breach/, Mining.com produced a summary at http://www.mining.com/web/some-facts-about-the-mount-polley-mine/, and VICE wrote http://www.vice.com/en_ca/read/tailings-ponds-are-the-biggest-environmental-disaster-youve-never-heard-of-714

Mining Watch, the go-to source for mining and the environment, also just completed its own overview.

What does that look like: here are some photos of the site. http://globalnews.ca/news/1493355/before-and-after-photos-show-devastation-of-mount-polley-mine-tailings-pond-breach/ ; http://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/british-columbia/environmental-strife-from-bc-mines-waste-water-breach-in-33-aerial-photos/article19937546/#dashboard/follows/

There is also an excellent video on cbc at http://www.cbc.ca/player/News/Canada/BC/ID/2483555476/ . What is notable about this video is, well, the audio: the interview of a former employee, Gerald McBurney, explaining why it was a disaster waiting to happen, rather than a surprise (do me a favour : watch once without sound, the video is amazing. But with sound, you get distracted from the images by the appaling revelations.) See also here on Global: http://globalnews.ca/news/1495694/former-mount-polley-mine-employee-speaks-out-about-the-tailings-pond-breach/

So the spill should not have been a surprise (despite denials by Imperials Metals president Brian Kynoch (http://www.macleans.ca/news/canada/warnings-about-b-c-tailings-pond-growth-ignored-before-collapse/ ), given that both the original dam designer, Knight Piésold, and the union representing the workers also warned the company: http://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/british-columbia/mine-workers-said-to-have-reported-safety-worries-in-months-before-spill/article19980962/#dashboard/follows/ ; http://www.knightpiesold.com/en/index.cfm/news/statement-by-knight-piesold-ltd-regarding-the-mount-polley-mining-incident/ ; http://www.vancouversun.com/news/metro/Firm+that+designed+original+Mount+Polley+tailings+says+warned/10102799/story.html

The consequences? Thankfully, this has not (yet) resulted in major toxicity issues, thanks in part to the fact that much of the spill ended up contaminating Quesnel lake, a large fjord lake that can effectively dilute chemical pollution. The analysis of lake waters show low concentrations (though the data seem to indicate that there is less total copper than there is dissolved copper, which makes one wonder). Results can be found at http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/british-columbia/mount-polley-mine-spill-water-quality-test-results-within-drinking-guidelines-1.2730042; http://www.env.gov.bc.ca/eemp/incidents/2014/pdf/2014Aug4_WaterSampleResults-AquaticLifeGuidelines_20140807.pdf; http://www.env.gov.bc.ca/eemp/incidents/2014/pdf/2014Aug4_WaterSampleResults-DrinkingWaterGuidelines_20140807.pdf

The water quality in the smaller Lake Polley is still unknown. But the main question that remains to be answered is whether the spill will endanger the upcoming sockeye run: http://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/british-columbia/first-nations-fear-the-worst-for-bcs-salmon-population/article19945332/#dashboard/follows/; http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/british-columbia/mount-polley-mine-spill-minister-says-residents-may-get-lucky-break-1.2731135

The consequences for the company? A fine up to one million (http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/british-columbia/mount-polley-mine-tailings-spill-imperial-metals-could-face-1m-fine-1.27288320 ) , and shares in Imprerial dropped 40% (http://www.vancouversun.com/business/Imperial+Metals+hammered+news+Mount+Polley+mine+waste+breach/10091440/story.html)

But probably the most obvious consequence was a complete disapproval of the government and its actions. The fact that the government knew about concerns at the mine, that staff in the Ministry of Environment and elsewhere have been decimated by cutbacks, and that the mine is a key contributor to the Liberal Party has led to a complete lack of credibility on the government’s part, according to pundits across the political spectrum from Barbara Yaffe to Stephen Hume and Rafe Mair: http://www.vancouversun.com/opinion/columnists/Barbara+Yaffe+reason+confident+environmental/10098486/story.html; http://www.vancouversun.com/Stephen+Hume+Blame+provincial+government+toxic+mine+spill/10092385/story.html; http://commonsensecanadian.ca/rafe-mount-polley-mine-proves-liberal-de-regulation-doesnt-work/; http://commonsensecanadian.ca/government-allowed-massive-production-toxin-increase-mount-polley-mine-tailings-pond-disaster/; http://www.huffingtonpost.ca/laila-yule/mount-polley-water_b_5660882.html; http://thetyee.ca/News/2014/08/08/Mine-and-Dam-Inspections-Dropped/; http://commonsensecanadian.ca/bennett-covers-mount-polley-owner-half-million-dollar-liberal-donor/; http://www.vancouversun.com/news/Province+approved+mine+expansion+despite+concerns+former+says/10102876/story.html

Readers are equally scathing (heads must roll!, writes one): http://www.vancouverobserver.com/opinion/letter-editor-heads-must-roll-over-mount-polley-disaster; http://www.vancouversun.com/opinion/letters/Friday+Readers+blast+Liberals+tailings+pond+breach/10098720/story.html

This also deals a blow to any confidence that First Nations may have had in government and miners reassurances (Grand Chief Stewart Phillip compares the disaster to Exxon Valdez), resulting in a blockade at Red Chris, another Imperial mine: http://ht.ly/A2N9V; http://www.vancouversun.com/business/resources/Mount+Polley+mine+disaster+blow+First+Nations/10095972/story.html; http://westcoastnativenews.com/breaking-klabona-keepers-blockade-imperial-metals-red-chris-mine/

This also means that mining projects may well be put on hold and operating licenses may need review; Americans are looking at the controversial Pebble Mine project, for instance, with new worry. http://www.pressprogress.ca/en/post/feds-expected-be-flooded-mining-proposals-after-gutting-law-internal-doc; http://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/british-columbia/bc-approves-53-billion-copper-gold-ksm-mine/article19869086/#dashboard/follows/; http://thetyee.ca/Blogs/TheHook/2014/07/31/BC-Mine-Unuk-River/; http://grist.org/news/this-giant-canadian-mine-spill-doesnt-make-us-feel-good-about-alaskas-pebble-mine/?utm_source=facebook&utm_medium=update&utm_campaign=socialflow

Is this disaster unprecedented? No. Here’s is a list of 98 world-wide tailings dam failures in the world since 1960, including three other in BC alone : http://www.wise-uranium.org/mdaf.html.

Is it one of the world’s worst spill , as recently claimed on Global (http://globalnews.ca/news/1498222/mount-polley-mine-tailings-pond-breach-is-one-of-the-worst-in-the-world-experts/ )? Judging by the above list, that’s unlikely, but the consequences, especially with respect to fish habitat, have yet to develop.

But what are the odds that similar disaster happen again in BC, asks Nature Canada: http://naturecanada.ca/news/blog/what-are-the-odds-of-another-disaster-like-the-mount-polleys-tailings-pond-breach/.

There are 91 mines in BC, according to the Mining Association (http://www.miningassociationbc.com/#), and most if not all have tailings ponds. Most have been designed and operated along the same lines as Mount Polley. And, as a further concern, the likelyhood of intense storms beyond the design capacity of the dams has increased because of climate change, as has pointed out Paul Beckwith (http://atlantic.sierraclub.ca/en/node/6334#.U-R_4qmsGqI.twitter). And dam experts point out that tailings ponds dam are the least reliable of dams of any sort, with a failure rate of well over once a year, world-wide (http://thetyee.ca/News/2014/08/07/Risky-Rise-of-Dams/ ). So, then, well…

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Written by enviropaul

August 9, 2014 at 2:14 pm

One Response

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  1. […] there was indeed a very good run, but short of a record. But of course, the big story was the spill at the Mount Polley mine. There were also announcements that were discouraging to the environmental community: the Northern […]


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