By Ana Simeon and Ugo Lapointe
On August 4 last year, Quesnel Lake residents and communities along the Fraser River were eagerly anticipating one of the largest sockeye returns in recent history.
What they got instead was a nightmare: over 24 billion litres of mine waste burst through Imperial Metals’ Mount Polley dam into their watershed.
Mount Polley is the largest mining waste spill in Canada’s history. The consequences and overall costs of this disaster concern us all, including a steep cost on the industry’s reputation and public trust.
Yet a year later, the mine is running again under a restricted permit. While both the company and the B.C. government attempt to be reassuring, many questions remain unanswered.
What are the long-term impacts of the tailings breach on the local ecosystems? Initial water bans warned people not to drink or bathe. Quesnel Lake rose seven centimetres after the spill and its temperature increased by 2.5 degrees. The long-term effects of contaminants found in samples will need monitoring. The toxins are of concern to human health, animals, and aquatic life.
Despite approval to restart, there are still no long-term plans regarding site clean-up costs, water treatment, and mining wastes management. The B.C. government is not being precautionary enough. Locally affected First Nations and communities are being forced to live with risks and too few answers.
What kind of financial assurance do we have from Imperial Metals to cover clean-up costs, damages, perpetual care of the site, or costs from other potential failures? Imperial Metals has lost over 40 percent of its share value since the disaster last year; investors are clearly concerned about the risks associated with its mining operations.
We should be too. Imperial Metals is still subject to two investigations that could lead to civil and criminal charges against it, which in turn could lead to costly sanctions or litigations. The public could be left on the hook if the company is unable to pay the bill.
The independent review of the Mount Polley disaster predicted two tailings dam failures every decade in B.C. We should not have to ask which two rivers or watersheds are next.
We need to prevent future failures by strengthening and updating our outdated mining laws—some of which were written over 150 years ago. The government’s commitment to review the Mining Code is welcomed, but it needs to be broad enough to address the full range of necessary changes.
Mining shouldn’t mean toxic fish and water bans. As we commemorate the one-year anniversary of the Mount Polley disaster, let’s commit to moving out of the gold rush mentality and into an era of modern, more responsible mining.
Ana Simeon is with Sierra Club B.C. Ugo Lapointe is with MiningWatch Canada. This article was also published in the Georgia Straight.