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Year four: Tracing Mount Polley’s toxic legacy

It was one of the largest environmental disasters in Canada’s history. Now, four years after the failure of the tailings dam at the Mount Polley mine, scientists and local residents alike grapple with the uncertain impacts of millions of cubic metres of contaminated waste that still linger in Quesnel Lake

This is part one of a two-part feature on the impacts of the Mount Polley mine spill, four years in. Read part two

The view from Kim Goforth’s lake-front home on the shore of Quesnel Lake, the place he plans to live out his last days, is almost perfect. On a sunny September morning the waters of this giant fjord — one of the deepest on earth, and a nursery for sockeye salmon — are mirror calm.

Turning with the first chill of autumn, the cottonwoods and paper birch add a splash of yellow and rusty orange to the mountains that ring the lake.

The postcard view has just one blemish: a patch of grey along the tip of the adjacent mountaintop. It’s the Mount Polley copper-gold open pit mine, which has now returned to full production, storing its liquid waste in a dam perched high above.

Four years ago, the tailings dam breached, releasing a torrent of 25 million cubic meters of metal-rich tailings, which took a mountainside of trees and soil along with it, into the deeps of Quesnel Lake.

Many of us who saw the early, unforgettable video footage of the disaster, unwittingly saw Goforth’s 240 horsepower fishing boat, the Sergeant Pepper, as it cruised the periphery of the spill.

Kim Goforth’s boat, Sergeant Pepper, spotted in the now-notorious footage of the Mount Polley mine spill and its aftermath. Screengrab: Cariboo Regional District via Youtube

Goforth woke that morning to the sound of “10 jets taking off at the same time” and unlike many who fled for fear of unknown toxins, his first instinct was to race to the scene.

“I was overwhelmed by the enormity of it,” he says of the sight of the once-trickling Hazeltine creek, transformed into a 500-metre confluence choked with tailings sludge, boulders, earth and broken trees.

“The world changed for us that day.”

Haida Biro and Kim Goforth Mount Polley

Kim Goforth and his partner Haida Biro in front of their home in Mitchell Bay which overlooks Quesnel Lake. They have lived on the lake for the past ten years. Photo: Louis Bockner / The Narwhal

Haida Biro, resident of Quesnel Lakes’s Mitchell Bay, aboard her boat at the mouth of Hazeltine Creek. Photo: Louis Bockner / The Narwhal

Resilience and uncertainty

About four years later, I’m on the Sergeant Pepper with photographer Louis Bockner, taking the same boat ride to the disaster site, as the first step in our investigation probing the lasting impacts of the spill on the lake and surrounding communities.

What we see on this morning does not compute with the nightmarish images taken four years earlier: a black bear swims across the western arm of the lake, while a family of otters feast on sockeye salmon, which are at this moment migrating to their spawning grounds on the nearby Horsefly river. From the distance, the great wound on the mountainside looks more like a white sandy beach. On approach, a golden eagle perches on a skeletal cottonwood tree that was suffocated by the spill, but still stands.

A bald eagle soars overhead in between meals on the Horsefly River. Photo: Louis Bockner / The Narwhal

Lichen, hanging from a fir tree, glows in the morning sun rising over Quesnel Lake. Photo: Louis Bockner / The Narwhal

A dying cedar seedling, planted as part of the remediation efforts at the mouth Hazeltine Creek. Photo: Louis Bockner / The Narwhal

We expected a wasteland, but what we get is a bounty. It speaks to the resilience of this place, I tell Goforth in amazement, but he stops me short.

“We see it every day, how much nature fights back,” he says. “It does heal. But there’s only so much nature can undo.”

He motions to Hazeltine creek, which the company has spent millions reforming back into a stream, complete with about 60 dead trees deposited root-side up into the grey ooze, apparently to provide bird habitat. The landscape looks neat and groomed, but years later, very little actually grows here.

Hazeltine Creek, once a small stream running through dense forest, is now an exposed, barren landscape after a flood of tailings waste swept down its entirety from Polley Lake to Quesnel Lake in August 2014. Photo: Louis Bockner / The Narwhal

“This isn’t a passing grade for anyone,” he says of Imperial Metals, Mount Polley’s owner, which he holds responsible for the tailings that linger on the bottom of the lake.

“We still don’t know what the effect of this will be for many years.”

Four years on

Four years after the disaster, the mine has not paid a cent in fines. Not only does the toxic, copper-enriched tailings continue to live and seasonally resuspend around the deeps of Quesnel lake, but in spring 2017 the mine got permission from the B.C. government to discharge almost 60,000 cubic metres per day of tailings effluent into the lake.

Despite the terms of a permit that says this effluent must be treated, the company has been found out of compliance at least three times in 2018. (Mount Polley owner Imperial Metals did not respond to an interview request.)

Despite strong penalties on paper for breaking the permit terms, the province has to date issued only written warnings for breaking the law. (Under Section 120[6] of the B.C. Environmental Management Act, a permit holder breaking the rules is liable on conviction to a fine up to $1 million or imprisonment for up to six months, or both.)

The last light of day shines on the mountains rising out of Quesnel Lake between Likely and Horsefly, B.C. Photo: Louis Bockner / The Narwhal

Meanwhile, the federal government has until summer 2019 to charge the company for polluting Quesnel lake, just as Mount Polley parent Imperial Metals struggles with debt payments and could even go broke.

This threatens the livelihood of about 300 families based around Williams Lake, Likely and Horsefly.

Making matters worse for the company, there are at least three additional legal actions pending against the company — brought by multiple local First Nations and possibly others.

And then there’s the sockeye.

Counting many salmon

Back in the late summer of 2014, about 800,000 sockeye were forced to swim through a vast suspended cloud of mud, copper, selenium, phosphorus and more as they passed through the western shallows of the lake.

Copper in particular, is of particular concern with salmon — it’s toxic to life in high concentrations, but in sublethal amounts can impair the sensory pathways that allow the fish to “smell” their way home to their natal streams.

Quesnel Lake sockeye is one of the most important (and biggest) runs of salmon left in British Columbia. Most are born in the gravel of the Horsefly and Mitchell rivers (which connect to the lake), and spend up to two years rearing in Quesnel lake.

Sockeye Salmon Mount Polley

A dead sockeye salmon on the banks of the Horsefly River near Quesnel Lake. Photo: Louis Bockner / The Narwhal

Mount Polley Quesnel Lake

Mist rising from Quesnel Lake. Photo: Louis Bockner / The Narwhal

Sockeye Salmon Mount Polley Horsefly River

A spawning sockeye salmon in the Horsefly River Spawning Channel near Horsefly, B.C. Photo: Louis Bockner / The Narwhal

Then they migrate down the Quesnel river to the Fraser River near the city of Quesnel, swimming more than 500 kilometres to the Lower Mainland and out to sea. What happens out in the sea, as they swim in wide arcs up towards Alaska, is uncertain; all we know is that fewer survive the two-year odyssey in the Pacific.

2014 was a dominant year for Quesnel lake sockeye — meaning it was the largest migration of the four-year life cycle (each generation of salmon spends two years rearing in Quesnel lake, and two years out in the ocean before returning to spawn).

The timing of the disaster seemed like a catastrophe for these fish, but early 2018 reports from Fisheries and Oceans Canada suggested that returns were strong. Arriving in the town of Likely at the outlet of Quesnel lake in early September, there was an easy way to confirm this.

I went to the Quesnel River Research Centre just outside of town, where the Department of Fisheries and Oceans had set up a sonar array across the Quesnel river to count the salmon returning to Quesnel Lake and beyond.

Department of Fisheries and Oceans technician Lauren Steele was sitting in the living room of “the residence” — a cozy house set up to accommodate 18 researchers at a time. With a hand counter like a baseball umpire, she counted little sockeye blips navigating the sonar image of the river cross section on her laptop.

To my eyes the sockeye blips were difficult to discern from the odd chinook salmon or resident rainbow trout, but as Steele explained, the sockeye swim closer to the banks to escape the strong current, and unlike the big chinook that use their entire bodies to swim (“like sharks,” she says), the sockeye rely more on their tails.

On a single day in late August, Steele and a partner counted about 50,000 sockeye entering the lake — which was the peak. By early September 6, almost 670,000 sockeye had returned. By the end of the month, nearly 830,000 adult sockeye had swam into Quesnel Lake.

“This many returning [sockeye] suggests the adults that swam through the plume and spawned in 2014, that their offspring were not deleteriously affected,” says University of Northern B.C. geography professor Ellen Petticrew, who heads up a team of QRRC researchers focused on how the metal-rich tailings from the spill have affected life in the entire lake system.

“That’s the good news.”

Impossible to blame the tailings

Quesnel Lake is like a giant pantry for sockeye salmon, so immediately after the spill, Petticrew sampled zooplankton — tiny microscopic fish food — and found that the copper concentrations in the west basin of the lake (the area most severely impacted by the spill) — were 2.5 times higher than in areas further away from the spill.

Back in 2014, the returning sockeye were just temporarily passing through the tailings plume.

The bigger question, says Petticrew, is the impact of the tailings, and specifically copper, on the year-round residents of the lake’s west basin: resident fish like rainbow trout, lake trout, kokanee, and all the one- and two-year old rearing sockeye salmon that eat full-time from the pantry.

As it happens, the returns of adult salmon for 2016 and 2017 were extremely low — 1,081 and 114,581 respectively. These were the fish that reared in the lake full-time in the years immediately after the spill.

I take these numbers to Daniel Selbie, Head of Fisheries and Oceans’ Lakes Research Program, who is studying the effects of the spill on fish, who cautions reading too much into these numbers.

Quesnel Lake returns vary widely from year to year, he says. Not only are so-called “low abundance years” low, but all cycles have taken a hit since around 2002, when multi-million returns were recorded.

The 2016 returns are low for sure, but it’s not possible, based on what we know, to draw a cause and effect relationship between toxins introduced into the lake and poor sockeye survival, he says.

It’s also difficult to separate the impact of tailings pollution from many other factors that affect salmon health and survival.

Quesnel Lake Mount Polley

Quesnel Lake was once considered one of the cleanest bodies of water in British Columbia. Now many of the residents fear drinking the water four years after the Mount Polley spill. Photo: Louis Bockner / The Narwhal

For one, no reliable baseline exists for levels of copper and other toxins in Quesnel lake before the spill.

Sockeye also face poor ocean survival, overfishing and potentially lethal high river temperatures on the Fraser in recent years.

Selbie says in 2015 the department found higher metal concentrations in juvenile sockeye rearing in the west basin of the lake as opposed to the east after the spill, but the lack of baseline information and “poor fish numbers” in certain years makes it difficult to draw any conclusions.

Beyond this, a cloak of confidentiality continues to lie over some  of the data, because it’s possible that some of it could be used in a federal court case against the company.

The B.C. Ministry of Environment confirmed in late September that four years after the spill, an active investigation into the Mount Polley spill continues, involving the B.C. Conservation Officer Service, the Department of Fisheries and Oceans, and Environment and Climate Change Canada.

“Potential charges under the Federal Fisheries Act remain in play,” Ministry of Environment spokesman David Karn told The Narwhal.

Until the legal question is settled, a lot of information about the effect of the spill on Quesnel sockeye and the wider ecosystem will remain in a black box.

Nutrients feed algae blooms

Kim Goforth is a sports fishing fanatic who spends a lot of time on the lake. He echoes what I hear from other locals: since the spill, the water isn’t as clear as it used to be, and there is now a slimy algae-like coating on the rocky shore and lake bottom.

In summer 2017, there was a big algae bloom — something no one remembers happening in the past.

The tailings that now live in the lake contain large amounts of phosphorus (which is like fertilizer for algae), but there have also been big wildfires in recent years that have deposited a lot of nutrient ash into the lake.

An aerial view of the modified mouth of Hazeltine Creek.

University of Northern B.C.’s Ellen Petticrew isn’t sure what is causing the algae blooms. She says it appears the tailings phosphorus is not “readily bioavailable,” which means it will take time for these nutrients to become food for algae.

But there is now a large mass of phosphorous on the bottom of the lake that wasn’t there before, that will eventually be released — with unknown effects.

Bad for business

I spend my first night in Likely’s High Country Inn, an aging hotel resort with a large ‘For Sale’ sign out front. Owner Jenean Crosina has a long history in the area — her grandfather was a logger, her parents built the motel and as I arrive she is planning to move to Williams Lake, which involves a frustrating search for affordable rental space for her family.

She says that the tourism industry centred around the lake has been tainted by the disaster.

“What they took from us is our reputation, and I want it back.”

Hazeltine Creek Mount Polley

Kim Goforth and journalist Christopher Pollon at the mouth of Hazeltine Creek. Photo: Louis Bockner / The Narwhal

Clouds Quesnel Lake Mount Polley

Dramatic clouds, reminiscent of wildfire smoke stacks, rise above the mountains surrounding Quesnel Lake. Photo: Louis Bockner / The Narwhal

Her real estate agent has reached out to Europeans — like the Germans and Swiss who gravitate to remote hinterlands like Quesnel Lake — but with no success to date. The slow progress is no mystery to Crosina.

“Try Googling ‘Quesnel Lake’ without seeing Mount Polley come up,” she says.

Crosina’s parents still live here, so she will continue to spend a lot of time here with her family, even after she moves away. It will always be home, she says. Which brings up the issue of mine effluent into the lake.

“I still eat fish out of here,” she says, motioning to the lake, suddenly addressing the company she holds responsible for the local decline.

“Get your pipes out of my lake, I don’t care what else you do now.”

A decline is Likely

To get some perspective on the impact of the disaster on local real estate, I reached out to Horsefly Realty’s Victor Khong after I returned. Khong is many things besides a realtor; based in Horsefly, he is a volunteer firefighter, kickboxing instructor and a local history buff who knows a lot about mining.

Horsefly is upstream of the spill so was spared a lot of the fallout from the disaster, he tells me.  A generation of millennials born in that area, now in their late 20s and early 30s with kids, are returning to buy cheap homes and acreages.

Crosina’s home of Likely is another story.  Enough time has passed now that it is no longer “stigmatized” by the disaster, he says, but there are other problems.

Unlike Horsefly, which is better farm and ranching country, Likely suffers from mountainous topography, it has very little paved road and a school of a dozen kids taught by a single principal. People may buy there, says Khong, but many have difficulty selling there.

Then there’s the impact of the Mount Polley mine, Likely’s primary employer, which will close in 2026.

“When Mount Polley closes its doors, Likely will continue on, but it will be on life support.”

Update, November 7, 2018 1:20pm pst: The word slurry has been replaced with effluent in this piece to more accurately reflect the nature of the tailings being deposited into Quesnel Lake.

Christopher Pollon is a Vancouver-based independent journalist who reports on the politics of natural resources, focusing on energy, mines and…

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