Blog Entry

There’s little hope Mother Nature can keep up or repair the damage to Quesnel Lake, Polley Lake and Hazeltine Creek

Jamie Kneen

National Program Co-Lead

Guest blog by Concerned Citizens of Quesnel Lake

"Remediation of Hazeltine Creek may be complete, but recovery of the creek and Quesnel Lake by Mother Nature will take many decades to complete…”

On August 4, 2014, the worst mining disaster in Canadian history happened at the Mount Polley Copper Mine northeast of Williams Lake, British Columbia. The tailings dam failed, dumping over 25 million cubic metres of toxic wastewater and mine tailings into Hazeltine Creek, Polley Lake, and ultimately into Quesnel Lake.

Quesnel Lake is one of the deepest freshwater fjord lakes in the world at over 2000 feet deep. It is in a rare inland rain forest, glacially fed, and supports a host of wildlife including many spawning salmon and trout species. It is indeed a special place.

After the dam failure, the B.C. government approved a permit for Mount Polley Mining Corporation (MPMC), a subsidiary of Imperial Metals, to temporarily discharge the mine wastewater directly into Quesnel Lake via pipelines, with the condition that it find alternative discharge options by December, 2022 to improve effluent water quality before discharge.

In the eight years since the disaster, the mining company appears to have done nothing to find treatment options, and it is now asking the provincial government, the community, and the First Nations, to allow another three years of uninterrupted direct discharge into Quesnel Lake. As the company continues to identify additional ore reserves to extend the life of the mine, this unfettered pollution of Quesnel Lake could run for decades to come. And not only is MPMC making no effort to improve effluent quality, but it is actively fighting, through the B.C. Environmental Appeal Board, a permit condition that requires it to reduce copper concentration in the effluent. (Copper is known to be toxic to many marine organisms.)

As a matter of record, MPMC has stated that it will not go into full production without approval of the amendment to discharge to 2025, putting 350 much-needed jobs on the line and essentially holding the community to ransom. What small town economy in B.C. doesn’t need jobs? This is as true in the Cariboo region B.C. and the city of Williams Lake as elsewhere.

As MPMC forges ahead, requesting multiple amendments to a discharge permit that should never have been granted in the first place, we look back to see whether MPMC and Imperial Metals have been held accountable in any meaningful way for their actions leading up to the dam breach. Imperial Metals itself sued several engineering firms, alleging negligence and breach of contract, and received about $108 million. Just last week, the engineers of record for the mine at the time have been disciplined by their own professional body with penalties including $226,500 in fines.

What has Mount Polley Mining Corporation paid in fines or penalties? The B.C. Conservation Officer Service and the Canada Department of Fisheries and Oceans recommended charges, but no charges have been laid by the Crown Prosecution Service! The Crown actually took over and ‘stayed’ (quashed) the charges filed by MiningWatch Canada as a private prosecution under the federal Fisheries Act, rather than picking them up – and then did the same with Bev Sellars’ private prosecution under the provincial Environmental Management Act and Mines Act. The companies and persons responsible for operating the mine have NOT been held accountable. 

How do we put a price tag on the eventual recovery of Quesnel Lake and Polley Lake? They will be remediated by Mother Nature over the next decades, at no cost to the mine, but they cannot actually be cleaned up! Nature will eventually take care of the tailings in the lakes as they stabilize in the lakebottom sediment. BUT with the B.C. government-permitted pipes into Quesnel Lake and the astronomical amount of untreated mine waste discharge – 10 million cubic metres annually – to be diluted by the once pristine waters of Quesnel Lake, there’s little hope Mother Nature will be able to keep up or repair the damage.

Concerned Citizens of Quesnel Lake has launched a petition asking the B.C. government not to extend Mount Polley Mining Corporation's temporary permit to discharge 52,000 cubic metres per day of mine effluent directly into Quesnel Lake. Sign here! You can also help support their work by donating here.