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Whether it was an act of God or the fault of negligent mine operators, the cause of Mount Polley mine spill — the worst mining disaster in Canadian history — remains officially undetermined, leaving local residents in a frustrated state of limbo.
One year ago this week the Mount Polley mine tailings impoundment collapsed, sending a catastrophic 24 million cubic metres of contaminated mining waste down the Hazeltine Creek and into Quesnel Lake, a local source of drinking water and in peak years can host up to 60 per cent of the province’s sockeye salmon run.
The province of B.C. says the Mount Polley Mining Corporation, owned by Imperial Metals, is still under investigation although some fear a January report that found glacial silt responsible for the instability of the collapsed tailings pond may take culpability away from the company.
Kanahus Manuel, a local indigenous activist and member of the Secwepemc First Nation, said the province’s decision to approve a partial re-opening of the Mount Polley mine last month signals to the media and the public that the company is without blame.
“The province giving the permit to Mount Polley was very irresponsible,” she said. “Mount Polley still under investigation and they haven’t cleaned up this disaster.”
Manuel doesn’t believe the reason for the tailings pond collapse was due to the presence of glacial silt.
“According to the people who worked here at the mine it was negligence. The dam wasn’t built properly and the company was not giving workers the proper material, the rock material, they needed to stabilize it.”
“That needs to be addressed,” she said. “They’re getting away with it."
Manuel said she marked the one-year anniversary of the spill at a protest at the entrance to the mine with about 100 other individuals from as far away as Vancouver and Montreal.
“It’s very distressing to us as salmon people,” Manuel added, saying local fishermen attended the gathering to feed participants salmon.
“People still have these emotions about the disaster, not knowing what the cumulative impacts and the impacts on the salmon will be in years to come.”
Manuel said she is concerned about the movement of the mining waste through the food chain. “You’ve seen it, the sediment is pulverized into tiny particles. Those are the particles that are going into the food chain and will bioaccumulate in our bodies.”
Fine waste material from the tailings pond on the author's boots, August 11, 2014. Photo: Carol Linnitt.
Sam Albers, manager at the Max Blouw Quesnel River Research Centre, is studying the long-term impacts of the spill on aquatic species and said the effects of the spill will take time to show up in the data.
Albers said the spilled material contains heavy metals like copper and selenium but some of the metals are likely still bound up in rock material. The question is how effectively the metals are dissolving in the water and how that will affect fish over the long term.
"The big concern is that copper and salmon really don't mix all that well,” he said.
"Specifically, dissolved copper and salmon don't mix well. It can get into their olfactory system — so the fish equivalent of a nose — and really mess with their ability to utilize their ecosystem properly."
Albers explained the one-year anniversary of the spill is significant for scientists collecting data, because it allows for "more comparing apples to apples."
"We can now compare August sixth data from this year to August sixth data from last year. That will help us develop that longer-term time series which is critical to being able to comment on the impacts."
Sediment-laced water can be seen flowing into Quesnel Lake at the base of the rebuilt Hazeltine Creek. Photo: Farhan Umedaly.
Fisheries biologist and local resident Richard Holmes said he is also concerned about the impact of the spill on fish species.
“I think the impacts will be long-term but we just don’t know how severe they will be,” he said.
“Especially for the fishery resources, the biggest concern for Quesnel Lake is the sockeye salmon.”
Holmes said he is glad attention is being paid to the environmental impacts of the spill although he said he is “disappointed” the company and the province were so eager to get the mine up and running again. The Ministry of Environment approved a permit for the mine to partially restart operations in June.
Holmes said the mine and the province acted “like they’d just won the lottery.”
“I was insulted, actually.”
“They’ve forgotten completely about the social impacts and the cultural and economic impacts on the people in the community,” he said.
He added that a recent flood in Cache Creek has received much more immediate attention from the province which stepped in with disaster relief funds for the community.
“That has never been offered here,” he said.
The province did provide $50,000 to the Likely Chamber of Commerce after the spill occurred but Holmes said that amount was inadequate. “That works out to $143 per person for a year of dealing with this disaster.”
Richard Holmes near his home in Likely, B.C. Photo: Carol Linnitt
He said because the investigation into the Mount Polley spill is still ongoing, the community is struggling to stay afloat without compensation.
“The government can’t have it both ways. Either there is somebody to blame who must pay. Or if nobody is to blame then the government needs to step in,” he said.
Local eco-tourism operator Gary Zorn also expressed frustration at the lack of compensation for Likely residents and business owners.
“What’s the difference between here and what happened here and in Cache Creek?” Zorn said.
“Cache Creek has a huge disaster, a natural disaster, and the government rushes there and gives everybody there up to $300,000 and here we have a massive mining disaster and the government gives them a start up permit.”
Zorn and his wife Peggy said their eco-tourism business, which offers grizzly-watching adventures, lost hundreds of thousands of dollars the day the Mount Polley disaster occurred.
“How come the government doesn’t say, ‘hey you guys, you created some real issues here, there’s some businesses you really did dirt to, you really hurt them. You straighten that mess out too.’”
“Or is the government to blame too?" Zorn said. "I mean, what’s going on here. How do you keep passing the buck and promising lies and lies and lies?”
The province is currently conducting two investigations into the Mount Polley mine spill through the Conservation Officer Service and the Chief Inspector of Mines.
“We will ensure that those responsible are held accountable,” a spokesperson for the Ministry of Environment said.
Ugo Lapointe, Canada program coordinator for MiningWatch Canada, said it doesn’t make sense to restart the mine with two investigations pending.
“The ongoing investigations could lead to serious civil and criminal charges against Imperial Metals or its contractors, which in turn could lead to severe or very costly sanctions or litigations,” Lapointe said. “This critical information should be made publicly available before even thinking of reopening the mine.”
In a video released by the province to mark the one-year anniversary of the spill, Steve Rothman, senior inspector of mines from the Ministry of Energy and Mines, said, “the province would like to see the mine back in operation and in a safe and environmentally-conscious program that takes all the workers back to work and helps support the community.”
But Lapointe echoes the concerns of the community: “Again we seem to be repeating the same mistakes as before by prioritizing the company’s economic interests over safety and the environment. This is really about getting Imperial Metals back to profitability.”
“We are very concerned of the lack of detailed assessments of the costs and damages caused so far by this massive failure onto the local environment, communities, and businesses, as well as onto First Nations’ right and livelihoods in the area,” Lapointe said.
“Who will ultimately compensate and pay the bill for all of those damages? The persistent blanket of silence on this issue is very worrisome.”
Image Credit: The reconstructed base of the Hazeltine Creek and Quesnel Lake. Photo: Farhan Umedaly.
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