Breach of Trust: Opposing Factions Divide Likely, B.C., Months After Mount Polley Mine Spill

"I’m surprised that nobody has been killed here since the spill.”

That’s what one resident of Likely, B.C., recently told me at her home near Quesnel Lake, the site of the Mount Polley mine disaster that sent 24 million cubic metres of mining waste into the lake last August.

Speaking on the condition of anonymity she said she was warned by another community member about discussing the Mount Polley mine spill with journalists.

“Be careful, they said to me. Be careful.”

She said another woman, who lives up the road, received three separate threatening phone calls after speaking with a television crew in the wake of the spill.

“One person told her she should mind her own goddam business.”

“A small place like this is very cliquey and I don’t need that in my life.”

“That’s how bad things have gotten here.”

In the months since the spill, considered one of the worst mining accident’s in Canada’s history, residents of Likely have found themselves on one side or the other of a strong dividing line.

Sulphur pile at the Mount Polley mine. Photo: Carol Linnitt

Those eager to have the mine, a major source of local employment, up and running again are squaring off against those who say not enough is being done to understand the long-term impacts of the disaster and how another might be prevented in the future.

Imperial Metals, owner of the Mount Polley Mine, is requesting a permit to reopen the mine. According to B.C. Minister of Energy and Mines Bill Bennett, the permit could be approved as early as the end of June.

Resident Ingrid Ritson, who lives along the Quesnel River, said the mine’s misfortune has torn the small town apart.

“I think that’s what’s driving some people away — the community’s not pulling together. There’s the company people and then there are the people who are like, ‘what the hell, what are you guys doing here?’” Ritson said.

“It’s very frustrating. The most frustration comes with realizing the government’s not backing anyone. They’re just trying to cover themselves,” she added.

“You expect some kind of direction but I think they’re just as dumbfounded as the rest of us. It was like turning the keys of your really high powered car to your 15-year old son and saying, ‘have fun.’ ”

“They just turned over all this responsibility and now we have this spectacular car wreck.”

Several locals said they are frustrated with the way officials from the Mount Polley mine are engaging the community. What were initially town hall-style meetings have been replaced with kiosk-style meetings, where locals can only speak one-on-one with representatives from the mine at separate stations.

Kanahus Manuel, an indigenous activist and member of the Secwepemc First Nation, told DeSmog Canada the meetings resemble a “science fair.”

“People go from stand to stand to talk to members from the government and the mine,” she said.

Manuel added the meetings have become “intense” and described one situation where residents refused to participate. “[They] put out the chairs and said ‘no’ we’re having a discussion with everyone about everything.”

“People are so angry and mad and they don’t trust anyone,” she said.

Denise Carlson at her home in Likely, B.C. Photo: Carol Linnitt

Long-time Likely resident Denise Carlson said she began noticing a change in the way meetings were conducted in November. Carlson attributes the change to Lyn Anglin, brought in by Imperial Metals after the spill to engage the community as a Chief Scientific Officer.

According to Carlson, Anglin initiated the change in the meeting structure.

“It has really frustrated people,” Carlson said, adding community tensions were running so high at one point the mine requested RCMP officers attend the meetings.

Anglin did not respond to multiple requests for an interview. Steve Robertson, vice president of corporate affairs for Imperial Metals and the Mount Polley Mine also declined to be interviewed.

Peggy and Gary Zorn, local wildlife guides that own Ecotours B.C., said they stopped attending the meetings altogether after the changes were initiated.

Peggy said Mount Polley stopped holding the meetings at the town hall and moved them to the bar in the town lodge.

“Why are we having the meetings in a bar? We have a town hall for that,” she said.

“The businesses are suffering quite a bit here in Likely because of the damage the breach has done,” Gary said. “It’s not so much what the breach did environmentally to us, it’s what it did socially.”

Gary said he’s concerned the mine is seeking a permit to reopen operations when it hasn’t fully dealt with the negative effects the spill has had on the community.

“Should these people be given a start up licence when they’ve totally avoided dealing with the social impacts of the disaster they created?” he said. “They haven’t done anything for anyone or any business in Likely except for create a mess and dodge a bullet.”

“There’s still an awful lot of questions and we need answers. I’m not sure they can provide answers. Something like this has never happened before,” Peggy said.

“It’s really disturbing to the community here.”

Craig Ritson at his home on the Quesnel River in Likely, B.C. Photo: Carol Linnitt

Ingrid’s husband, Craig Ritson, said the community is frustrated Imperial Metals wants to reopen the mine without significant changes to its operations.

The mine’s use of out-dated wet tailings technology, which involves storing massive quantities of water and mining waste in large pits, put the community at risk, Ritson said. And now the company is opening another mine, the Red Chris Mine in northern B.C., which uses the same wet tailings process. The company chose not to employ a dry tailings process that would eliminate the need for large water-filled tailings ponds.

“They were gambling with our future,” he said.  “And now they’re doing it at Red Chris.”

“I don’t know about you but when I raised my children I said: ‘A smart man learns from his mistakes. A wise man learns from the mistakes of others,’ ” he said. “They don’t seem to be learning from anything here.”

“I’m not just talking about the mine. I’m talking about the Ministry of Environment and the Ministry of Mines. None of them have learned.”

“How many times can you gamble with something and not change the system before the whole thing breaks down?”

Image Credit: The Quesnel River. Residents say the river has a milky glow at times since the Mount Polley Mine spill occurred. Photo: Carol Linnitt 

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Carol Linnitt is a journalist, editor, illustrator and co-founder of The Narwhal. Carol has been reporting on energy and environmental…

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