B.C. Approves Partial Reopening of Mount Polley Mine Despite Major Unanswered Questions About Tailings Spill

Nearly one year after the catastrophic collapse of the Mount Polley mine tailings pond, which sent an estimated 25 million cubic metres of contaminated mining waste and water into Quesnel Lake, the project is permitted to partially reopen.

The B.C. government approved a permit to temporarily restart the gold and copper mine at half capacity even though the company has no long-term plan to deal with an abundance of water on site. A backlog of water, which overburdened the tailings storage pit, contributed to the accident last August according to an engineering panel that investigated the incident.

Mines Minister Bill Bennett said the province will approve the short-term permit while the mine figures out how to deal with the excess water.

“Our choice was: Do we wait for them for a year to do absolutely everything that shows they have a long-term plan, or let them operate for a few months and get people working again and allow the company to earn some revenue, given there’s no negative impact to the environment?” Bennett said.

The Mount Polley Mining Corporation, owned by Imperial Metals, has until June 30, 2016 to craft a long-term water treatment plan. The province will review the mine’s operation permit at that time.

Major Water Contamination Concerns Remain

Despite assurances from the Ministry of Environment and mining officials that no permanent damage was caused to the lake, locals remain skeptical.

Until recently Mount Polley provided drinking water to residents drawing directly from Quesnel Lake or the river. But according to locals, the mine decided to cancel that program.

Greg and Ingrid Ritson, who live on and draw water from the Quesnel River in Likely said the company has always insisted the water was safe to drink but provided them for months with bottled water.

“I think water’s one of the biggest issues we’ve got to deal with,” Greg Ritson said.

Ritson said he and his wife shower in water they draw from the lake and the effects of doing so have him worried.

“You’ve got to watch. You will find if you shower every day, you will get dry spots, like I’ve never had in my life,” he said.

“But there’s lots of people here that have horrendous problems: breaking out in skin rashes and stuff that they’ve never, ever had. And no body can tell you why. If you ask what are the long-term effects of the chemicals in the water, they’ll say ‘oh they’re fine,’” he said. “But if they’re fine why couldn’t we drink them? There seems to be an imbalance there.”

Ritson said the initial water bans warned people not to drink or bathe in the water and to keep their pets away. Now with no substantial change, he said, “we’re supposed to bathe in it. Where did they come up with that?”

Fisheries biologist Richard Holmes near his home in Likely, B.C. Photo: Carol Linnitt

Major Remediation and Fisheries Questions Unanswered

“People are still wondering what the future holds for them and for Quesnel Lake,” fisheries biologist Richard Holmes told DeSmog Canada.

“Even though we’ve been at it for months now there are still a lot of questions left unanswered.”

Sitting in his home, a five-minute drive from the Quesnel River, Holmes said he is left wondering what the spill means for his community and the lake's aquatic species.

“You saw the damage done to Hazeltine Creek when you were here in August of last year, but even though they say that’s been repaired there’s so much left to be done. “

Holmes said sediment was dispersed from top to bottom in Polley Lake immediately adjacent to the mine and throughout Quesnel Lake for many months.

“We think the impacts will be long term but we just don’t know how severe they will be.”

“We can only hope the regulatory bodies do their job and that the regulations become much stronger. We have to expect better from these people.”

Recently groups in Alaska have expressed alarm at the B.C. government’s mismanagement of mines. There are currently 10 advanced mining projects proposed or operation along the B.C./Alaska transboundary watershed that Alaskans are saying pose a significant threat to the State’s fisheries and tourism.

“The world is watching us,” Holmes said.

“We have to keep stressing to the company and the government that they can’t shortcut this remediation. Unfortunately the mining company has a mindset of bottom line: what can we do as fast as we can for the least amount of money. That has to stop.”

“Right now we’re faced with the immediate concern of getting the excess water offsite.”

Even if the mine never reopened again they’d still have this water issue on site, Holmes said.

“It’s not just about re-openeing the mine but getting rid of contaminated water on site.”

Waste material from the Mount Polley mine tailings pond at the base of the Hazeltine Creek on August 11, 2014. Photo: Carol Linnitt

B.C.’s Sockeye Salmon Still At Risk from Mount Polley Spill

Sam Albers, manager of the Max Blouw Quesnel River Research Centre, said he’s concerned with the massive deposit of mining waste that remains at the bottom of Quesnel Lake.

In a recent paper published in Geophysical Research Letters, Albers and his team of co-authors estimated the waste deposit was roughly 600 metres long, one to three metres deep and over a kilometre across.

But Albers said that estimate was based on current information made available by the mine.

“A new report, the post-event environmental impact assessment, shows that deposit is way, way bigger,” Albers said. What concerns him is the effect of mining contaminants on aquatic species.

“There are a lot of resident fish here and they have a lot of value. But there’s a ton a sockeye salmon here as well.”

In his research Albers found that during peak years the amount of sockeye salmon returning to Quesnel Lake represents as much as 50 or even 60 per cent of the province’s sockeye salmon population. That’s during peak years, Albers said, adding sockeye tend to return in “a really pronounced four year cycle,” a natural rhythm that is to this day not exactly understood.

Quesnel River. Photo: Carol Linnitt

“We had a million fish come back this most recent year and two years before that we had 700 fish come back — which is natural. But the thing is this is an important salmon producing lake.”

"The big concern,” Albers said, “is that copper and salmon really don’t mix all that well.”

“Specifically dissolved copper and salmon don’t mix well. It can get into their olfactory system — so the fish equivalent of a nose — and really mess with their ability to utilize their ecosystem properly.”

Albers said studying the levels of dissolved copper in Quesnel Lake over the long-term will be critical to understanding the impact of the spill on sockeye.

“You’ve got that huge deposit on the bottom of the lake that’s what worries me,” he said.

“This is a really important sockeye salmon lake so monitoring the sockeye food source seems like a really prudent thing to be doing.”

Image Credits: Carol Linnitt

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