Mount Polley mine disaster B.C. Hazeltine Creek The Narwhal

7 years after Mount Polley disaster, B.C. faces another mining boom — and regulations still fall short

On Aug. 4, 2014, a dam holding contaminated waste failed, causing one of the worst mining disasters in Canadian history. Despite repeated promises from the province to avoid a similar disaster, communities remain at risk and on the hook for the costs of mine pollution, according to experts

Seven years after a tailings pond containing contaminated mining waste collapsed in interior B.C., sending 24 million cubic metres of mining waste into surrounding waterways, critics and an internal audit show the province is still falling short of having regulations that ensure the safety of the province’s mines. 

On Aug. 4, 2014, a four-square-kilometre pond holding copper and gold mining waste from the Mount Polley mine breached, spilling the toxic tailings into Polley Lake, Hazeltine Creek and Quesnel Lake — sources of drinking water and spawning grounds for sockeye salmon. 

In the aftermath of this disaster, the provincial government promised to make changes to its regulatory framework for tailings storage facilities to prevent a repeat of the Mount Polley tailings dam collapse. 

However, the results of an internal audit, released this spring that assessed whether these changes were strong enough, found gaps, inconsistencies and ambiguity remain.  

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The question of whether B.C.’s mining laws protect communities and waterways is especially relevant right now as the province faces the prospect of a new mining boom. 

The results of the latest annual British Columbia Mineral and Coal Exploration Survey found that, in spite of the COVID-19 pandemic, exploration spending increased by 28 per cent between 2019 and 2020. Currently, there are over 70 tailings storage facilities listed as either operating, closed, or undergoing maintenance in B.C.

The ministry of mines claims the mining industry is critical to economic recovery as a part of post-pandemic recovery. During a spring virtual ‘mining day’ at the B.C. legislature, the ministry also advertised that B.C.’s current regulations make the province a world leader in harvesting clean, responsibly sourced metals. 

“We have taken steps to strengthen health, safety and environmental compliance, to improve permitting and to advance reconciliation, distinguishing us as leaders in the growing global environmental, social and governance investment movement,” said Bruce Ralston, Minister of Energy, Mines and Low Carbon Innovation, in a mining day statement.

However the internal audit casts doubt on whether current regulations are enough to prevent another Mount Polley-like catastrophe, finding that the ministry is inconsistent in its approach to enforcing some safety code provisions and dealing with tailings storage facilities at mines that are no longer operating. 

The audit made seven recommendations to resolve these inconsistencies — recommendations that Ralston publicly committed to implementing in June, as a step toward creating a better regulatory framework for tailings facilities.

Geophysicist David Chambers has been researching the issue of tailings dam breaches for about a decade and became familiar with the Mount Polley disaster in B.C. as it was the first major failure of a mining dam in Canada. 

“I think both mining companies and regulators, while they have taken some necessary steps to try to solve that problem, I’m not sure that they’ve gone far enough to really make the changes that we need to make,” Chambers told The Narwhal.

Mining companies aren’t required to provide full up-front reclamation costs

Two years ago, the B.C. First Nations Energy and Mining Council issued a report that recommends the province require all mining companies to provide financial assurances to pay for possible future cleanup costs in case of a tailings dam breach, before they can go forward with their work. 

At the moment, B.C. relies on a phased system in which mining companies do not have to put up the full estimated clean-up cost up front and instead can rely in part on the value of the untapped commodities in the ground. 

The ministry of mines has not committed to adopting measures that would ask companies to provide up-front financial assurances for environmental damages. 

As of 2018, a report from B.C. ‘s Chief Inspector of Mines stated that while mining companies have contributed $1.6 billion in bonds to cover land reclamation costs, the total estimated costs of reclamation has risen to $2.8 billion. In the event that a mining company goes bankrupt and abandons operations, taxpayers are left to make up the difference. 

“I think British Columbia is probably the perfect candidate to lead the way if they really want to be the world leader in tailings dam regulation,” Chambers said, further explaining that there are two reasons why requiring up-front assurances would be a step in the right direction. 

First, there needs to be a guarantee that companies are on the line to pay for environmental remediation as well as compensation to surrounding residents and businesses in case of damages — something that taxpayers were on the hook for during the Mount Polley disaster — even if they go bankrupt or claim insolvency. 

Second, having to put up funds for cleaning a potential tailings dam breach gives companies a significant financial incentive to make sure those accidents do not happen in the first place. 

Chambers also argues that the province’s current regulations don’t do enough to make sure safety is the main consideration when looking at the design, construction, operation and closure of tailings dams in B.C.

“In a B.C. environment, where in a lot of areas you have high earthquake hazards, where you have high precipitation … upstream tailings dams don’t really make sense,” he said. “We need to look at this whole issue of wet closures.”

There are two main ways to store tailings from a mine: wet and dry. The wet method involves sealing a deposit of waste with water and is typically used with tailings facilities located in pits. The dry method involves covering tailings with solid material. 

The expert panel convened in 2015 to investigate the Mount Polley tailings facility breach called for a reduction in the use of the wet storage method. Despite this finding, the B.C. ministry of mines decided to take a “site by site” approach and, according to Chambers, have sided with a wet closure approach in every situation where the issue of tailings storage has come up.

“The reason it’s not being done is a cost consideration, because [the wet method] is the cheapest way to close things,” Chambers said.

The issue of wet tailings in B.C. recently sparked international concern when a company applied to increase its tailings pond capacity by 70 per cent at the Copper Mountain mine, which straddles the Similkameen River that flows south through the province before draining across the Canada-U.S. border into Washington State’s Okanogan River.  

The Copper Mountain mine’s tailings pond dam, at 155 metres high, is already four times taller than the Mount Polley mine tailings dam. Downstream residents in both B.C. and Washington State are concerned the enormous wet tailings impoundment, which would hold up to 420 million cubic metres of tailings should the increase be approved, is being considered for an expansion that may not undergo a formal environmental assessment.

By comparison, the Mount Polley tailings impoundment contained about 44 million cubic metres of tailings, and released about 17 million cubic meters of water and 8 million cubic meters of tailings in the 2014 spill.

The Mount Polley expert panel found that without updates to mining regulations, the province can expect two tailings dam collapses every 10 years. 

In 2016, the cost of cleaning up the province’s abandoned mining sites — left behind by owners and operators that “no longer exist” — was estimated to be around $508 million. This amount represents an increase of 83.4 per cent compared to 2014. 

For Chambers, the number one factor standing in the way of better regulations for tailing storage facilities is the amount of money they would require, both for mining companies and for regulators who would then be required to enforce the rules they put in place.

“[B.C.] just makes safety a consideration, not the primary consideration,” he said. “When you take safety and put that on an even par with financial considerations … money is going to win that battle every time, quite frankly, because that’s the way the system is set up.”

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