What could happen if a tailings dam fails

In our latest newsletter, we talk about the ever-growing tailings dams in B.C. and the catastrophic consequences if they breach

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Mining reporter Francesca Fionda stands in tall grass, wearing a Narwhal sweater.
Sometimes it takes a story that hits close to home to fully appreciate what’s at stake. 

That’s true for all of us — even members of our pod here at The Narwhal.

“Living in Vancouver, it can be easy to forget the impact mining could have and is having on the environment,” Francesca Fionda, our brand new mining reporter, told me.

Then, she started digging into a report that examined the scale and potential consequences of B.C.’s growing mining industry, which stores mine waste in massive above-ground ponds or pits contained by tailings dams. How massive? Cumulatively enough to fill one million Olympic-sized swimming pools. And that watered down waste can contain traces of heavy metals, selenium and even arsenic or cyanide.

“This report explained how, if there was a major tailings dam failure near our watershed, waste could flow down the Fraser River all the way into my hometown,” Francesca said.

A catastrophic failure like that could be detrimental to the Fraser River salmon runs that have played a vital role for food security in B.C. for thousands of years. That’s not to mention the risks to downstream communities across the Lower Mainland.

And it’s not just limited to the Fraser: there are 172 tailings dams and counting across B.C. As that number — along with the sheer size of the dams — grows, thanks to increased demand for minerals, so too do the risks to human life, ecosystems and infrastructure.

Nearly 60 per cent of mine sites with tailings dams in B.C. have a high, very high or extremely high failure consequence, the report from BC Mining Law Reform and SkeenaWild found. The fallout from a breach at a facility with a very high or extreme rating is bleak: it could lead to anywhere from 10 to more than 100 deaths.

Despite these risks, which are exacerbated by climate change, mining companies are seeking approvals to increase the maximum heights of tailings dams to levels higher than the tallest building in Vancouver. Industry representatives told Francesca that tailings storage facilities are built to withstand extreme weather events like floods and heat waves.
A graphic showing tailings dam heights compared to Vancouver's tallest skyscraper.

But has B.C. truly learned its lessons from the Mount Polley disaster eight years ago? Critics say provincial regulations still fall short — and that we need to stop building dams with high failure consequences, full stop.

Go here to read Francesca’s piece, her second in The Narwhal. Francesca is eager to find ways to make mining more accessible (be sure to visit our Instagram for “the prospect of puns”), so if you have ideas for stories you want her to, ahem, explore, please don’t hesitate to drop us a line.

“I’m really excited to start this beat for The Narwhal and invite readers along.”

Take care and mind your waste,

Arik Ligeti
Director of audience
Headshot of Arik Ligeti

P.S. Did you hear that we’re hiring? Tell your friends that we’re looking for an organizational wizard to support The Narwhal’s growing team as our HR generalist. The deadline to apply is July 18, so be sure to get those applications in soon!
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