As the three-year anniversary of the Mount Polley mine disaster approaches, so too does the deadline for the province to lay any charges against mine owner Imperial Metals.
Considered one of the worst environmental disasters in Canadian history, the failure of the Mount Polley tailings pond sent an estimated 25 million cubic metres of contaminated mine waste flooding into Quesnel Lake, a source of drinking water for local residents of Likely, B.C., on August 4, 2014.
“I would have expected something to have happened by now,” fisheries biologist and Likely resident Richard Holmes told DeSmog Canada. “I know they had a lot of information to sift through but it has been three years. I’m hopeful there will be some charges forthcoming.”
While the time limit for provincial charges runs out in August, federal charges, including for violations of the Fisheries Act, can be brought for another two years.
An investigation is ongoing by the Conservation Service Office, aided by the Department of Fisheries and Oceans and Environment and Climate Change Canada.
Meanwhile, the B.C. government granted Mount Polley permission to drain the mine directly into Quesnel Lake, where the vast majority of the spilled mine waste remains to this day. The B.C. government also gave Imperial Metals the go-ahead to build the Red Chris Mine in northwestern B.C., with the same tailings technology used at Mount Polley — despite experts recommending otherwise.
“I think the mining company is ahead now,” Holmes said. “Everything seems to have fallen in their favour since this disaster. Before the disaster they were looking at building a water treatment facility. Now they have basically a large filter in place and they just release everything directly into the lake.”
“I’m sure they’re happy about that.”
Alberta Coal Mine Slapped with $4.5 Million Fine for 2013 Tailings Spill
The absence of fines for the Mount Polley disaster was highlighted by a recent $4.5 million penalty handed out to a coal mining company in Alberta for a 2013 spill that released an estimated 670 cubic metres of tailings into tributaries of the Athabasca River. That spill was nearly 40,000 times smaller than the Mount Polley disaster.
Last month, the company responsible for the spill, Prairie Mines and Royalty, pleaded guilty to two violations of the federal Fisheries Act as well as one violation of the Alberta Environmental Protection and Enhancement Act.
Over $1 million in federal fines were used to fund research for fish habitat and recovery while an additional $2.1 million was paid to the Environmental Damages Fund.
Provincially, the company paid $363,000 in fines toward a dam research project considering the safe storage of water at coal mines as well as $370,000 for an environmental education project for indigenous youth, the CBC reports.
Ugo Lapointe, Canadian program coordinator for MiningWatch Canada, said Mount Polley could still face similar repercussions in B.C.
“It took nearly four years to see those charges brought forward in the case of the coal spill,” Lapointe told DeSmog Canada. “So, technically, Mount Polley timing is still comparable.”
However, Lapointe added, a $4.5 million fine may not be enough to encourage large mining corporations to change the quality of mine management.
He added the maximum penalty for violating the federal fisheries act is $12 million, $6 million for causing harm to fish and fish habitat and $6 million for dumping deleterious substances without a permit.
MiningWatch brought a private prosecution against the Mount Polley Mining Corporation and the B.C. government for violations of the Fisheries Act last fall but the federal government asked the courts to stay the charges, a request that was made before MiningWatch was given the opportunity to present evidence. The case was dismissed this spring.
“The federal government is currently reviewing its Fisheries Act,” Lapointe said. “We think it is also time it reviews the fines and possible criminal charges for those responsible of polluting Canadian waterways and aquatic habitats.”
— DeSmog Canada (@DeSmogCanada) July 23, 2017
Underfunded Liability for B.C. Mines an Estimated $1.5 Billion
B.C. taxpayers bear the lion’s share of liability stemming from the province’s many mines.
A 2016 study conducted by economist Robyn Allan for the Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs found financial assurance policies for mines are “woefully inadequate” leaving more than $1.5 billion in underfunded liability on the shoulders of everyday British Columbians.
The exact costs incurred by mines, for expenses like environmental disasters like Mount Polley as well as for reclamation of abandoned mines, is no longer made available to British Columbians, Allan found, stating the price tag could be even higher.
British Columbians were on the hook for an estimated $40 million in cleanup and reclamation costs for the Mount Polley mine spill.
There are more than 120 tailings dams in British Columbia and despite recommendations made to the B.C. government after the Mount Polley disaster, risky mine procedures, including the practice of storing mine waste in giant wet tailings ponds continues to this day.
Since the Mount Polley disaster three new mines have been approved with wet tailings impoundments, including the giant KSM mine in northwestern B.C. that was recently granted federal approval to construct a tailings dam in fish bearing waters.
“There are examples all over the world of responsible mining and that should become law in B.C.” Holmes said.
“But I haven’t seen any of the laws change. They’ve had three years to change them and have had recommendations coming from the Mount Polley investigation panel,” he said.
“But nothing’s changed. If I was an Alaskan I would be really worried about B.C. mines.”
Holmes said he would be worried in particular about the Red Chris mine which is owned and operated by Imperial Metals, the company responsible for the Mount Polley mine, and which also uses wet tailings technology.
“I hope the new government in B.C. will address those concerns. We haven’t done a very good job of looking out for our neighbours.”
Image: The Mount Polley mine disaster, August 2014. Photo: Cariboo Regional District