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Gary and Peggy Zorn lost their livelihood in the wake of the Mount Polley mining disaster one year ago today, the couple explained, after foreign tourists lost the desire to experience the region as a travel destination renowned for its wildlife.
Gary Zorn, adorned with the impressive title of “bear whisperer,” said their eco-tour grizzly-watching outfit lost hundreds of thousands of dollars the day the mine’s tailings pond breached sending as estimated 24 million cubic metres of contaminated mining waste down the Hazeltine Creek and into Quesnel Lake, a local source of drinking water.
The Zorns said in the year that has passed since the spill, the mine, owned by Imperial Metals, has only completed a superficial cleanup in the area, leaving a lingering stain on both the environment and the region’s reputation.
“It’s pretty quiet here,” Gary Zorn said. “The businesses are suffering quite a bit here in Likely because of the damage the breach has done.”
“It’s not just what the breach did environmentally to us; it’s what has happened with the bad publicity we got when this went around the world. That also hurt everybody here.”
He added Mount Polley has yet to deal with the social aspect of the accident.
“They did a lot of damage to a lot of people and are they going to address that? That’s what a lot of people here are wondering about.”
He said he questions the province’s decision to even consider giving the mine a partial start up license “when they’ve totally avoided dealing with what they’ve created.”
Gary said their guide business has been hit hard so he can empathize with the community’s need for economic stimulus — the kind a reopened mine might provide.
“I do know there are people who need jobs. There’s no two ways about it,” he said. “We’re not against mining or logging at all. I worked in mine and in the forestry industry and we worked together with these people.”
“It’s just that when I go ahead in our business and I make a mistake in the bush that affects someone else I’m expected to make that right.”
“That’s all that people here are expecting of Mount Polley. We’re called ‘Canada’s largest mining disaster’ now,” he added. “You guys screwed up. At least make it right.”
Last week the B.C. Ministry of Environment announced “significant progress” had been made in the first phase of the Mount Polley mine mitigation and remediation plan. According to the province the plan focused on stabilizing Hazeltine Creek and improving the quality of water entering Quesnel Lake.
The Ministry of Environment said it considered the containment of tailings, water treatment and the protection of fish “complete or suitably initiated.” Ongoing work will include an ecological and human health risk assessment, the province said.
Environment Minister Mary Polak said she acknowledges “full environmental remediation will take years,” but said the work done over the past year “is truly impressive.”
Peggy Zorn said the mine and the province are over-emphasizing clean up efforts without acknowledging the vast majority of the spill remains lingering at the bottom of Quesnel Lake.
“They’ve taken care of the aesthetics,” she said. “Things look okay but they haven’t dealt with the environmental mess.”
“They talk about the clean up that has been done. They’ve cleaned up the surface but there’s a lot of other stuff that hasn’t been done. They’ll never get [the mine waste] out of the lake so you can hardly call that a cleanup.”
Gary added, “all we’re saying is, hey, you guys created the mess. At least make an effort to straighten it out and not just what looks nice along the road.“
Richard Holmes, Likely resident and fisheries biologist, said he wishes there was more progress when it comes to environmental cleanup and recovery for the community on the one-year anniversary of the spill.
“We’ve managed to carry on in spite of it all, but we wish there was better news. It’s unfortunate this turned out the way it has,” he said, adding the community is divided over the outcome of the spill and the recent approval from the province to partially restart the mine.
“There are people going back to work at the mine that live here and there are at the other end of the spectrum people that were impacted or had their businesses impacted that haven’t had their needs addressed whatsoever by the company or the government.”
“We find that to be really lacking.”
Holmes also criticized the mine and the B.C. government for their self-congratulatory attitude concerning remediation and the reopening of the mine.
“The last public meeting was about a month ago and I was really disappointed to watch the mine and their consultants and the government people act like they’d just won the lottery. There were as happy as pigs in shit,” Holmes said.
“I felt somewhat insulted, actually.”
Holmes said his community was at the tail end of a “year of frustration” and to hear Mount Polley and the government so focused on making the mine profitable again seemed insensitive. “They’ve forgotten completely about the social impacts and the cultural and economic impacts on the people in the community. It’s disappointing.”
Holmes acknowledged that important environmental remediation work has been done but that both parties are likely too happy with what they’ve accomplished.
“They’ve certainly accomplished some things. Hazeltine Creek has been somewhat cleaned up," he said, adding flatly: "it looks like a pretty ditch now."
"But unfortunately it’s going to be used as a pretty ditch for a couple of years to transport waste water and it’s not going to be used for fish habitat for at least two years.”
“They may be happy but for people who live here it’s not what we envisioned at all,” he said.
“We expect better. They’re going to be here another 12 years. We expect them to get along with all the community and not just cherry pick who they hang out with here. They seem to be really focused on looking after their employees, the rest of us be damned.”
Image Credit: Tailings waste in the Hazeltine Creek, August 11, 2014. Photo: Carol Linnitt
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