Mount Polley

Four years in, still no fines, charges for Mount Polley mine disaster

Justice would mean not only compensation for those impacted but systemic reform to prevent spills of this kind in the future
By Christine McLean, Concerned Citizens of Quesnel Lake.

This week marks the four-year anniversary since the tailings dam at Imperial Metals’ Mount Polley mine collapsed, dumping 25 billion litres of mining waste into the once-pristine Quesnel Lake, Polley Lake and Hazeltine Creek.

Since then, there have been no fines, no charges, no penalties levelled against the company for this disaster.

For four years, local residents and people all over British Columbia have been awestruck by the ongoing injustice of it all.

It seems more likely an individual would face higher fines for accidentally spilling a litre of motor oil than what Imperial Metals has faced.

B.C. let the deadline for environmental charges come and go. There’s just one year left for charges to be brought at the federal level, if at all.

But guess what Imperial Metals’ has received in lieu of penalties? Permits.

The most egregious of which is a long-term water discharge permit which allows the mine to dump waste water directly into Quesnel Lake.

We’ve recently discovered B.C. is poised to approve new amendments to this discharge permit, to which community members were almost unanimously opposed.

The vast quantities of mine waste that flowed into Quesnel Lake remain there to this day and for that reason many of us living on the lake refuse to fish or drink the water.

Christine McLean argues changes should be made to prevent another Mount Polley-style spill from occurring in the future. Photo: supplied

And while the community awaits the return of the salmon that would be most impacted by contaminants in the spill, Imperial Metals’ financial situation seems to grow ever more precarious.

This week, stock value for Imperial Metals was listed at just over a dollar, or 119 pennies — a retired coin made perhaps ironically from copper, the very mineral extracted at the company’s three mines: Mount Polley, Red Chris and the former Huckleberry.

The total estimated reclamation costs for these three mines hasn’t been gathered by the B.C. government. But the province’s Auditor General in a 2016 report found B.C. faces over a billion dollars in mining closure liabilities.

As children we’re taught to clean-up our mess but mining companies seem to get away without doing so under British Columbia’s weak mining laws.

Can you imagine if we had mining rules in British Columbia that ensured polluters actually paid?

That guaranteed mine operators were financially sound and had a clean up plan in place before they could begin operations?

And living with the consequences of this spill, I can’t help but imagine what it would be like to live in a place where companies were held accountable for their disasters and made to compensate impacted communities.

After the Exxon Valdez oil spill in Alaska and Lac Megantic’s rail disaster in Quebec, actions were immediately taken to remedy rules and regulations, and to create an industry fund to cover compensation and ensure taxpayers are safeguarded from the costs of disasters.

Nothing similar has been set up since the Mount Polley disaster.

I don’t believe anyone wants a repeat of Mount Polley, but an independent panel report examining the incident found we’re likely to face another two tailings dam failures every decade if we continue on with business as usual.

While some superficial changes have been made, when it comes to the root causes of the Mount Polley mine disaster — the permitting of wet tailings ponds, the corrupted Professional Reliance model, an absence of full reclamation bonds and disaster relief funds — we have much work to do.

Justice for those impacted by what happened at Mount Polley will mean compensation for the community members hardest hit by this disaster and long-term study of the spill’s impacts to the environment and human health.

But justice should also mean broader mining reform across British Columbia so other communities don’t face the same impacts ever again.

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