British Columbians watched news coverage of the Mount Polley Mine disaster with shock and concern after a collapsed dam released almost 15 million cubic metres of toxic effluent into the salmon-rich Quesnel River systems. In addition to concerns for area residents’ immediate health and safety, dead fish are appearing and there are fears the spill could cause harm right up to the Fraser River.
While full impacts of this disaster have yet to be tallied, we know that water, salmon, human health and local jobs are at risk — all precious B.C. resources. Fish spawning and rearing grounds in Hazeltine Creek, Polley Lake and Quesnel Lake have been damaged, likely for years to come; a full water-use ban for the region is in effect; a state of local emergency has been declared; and thousands of people wait to learn what this will do to salmon now beginning their journey up the Fraser to spawn.
While we wait for answers on how this environmental disaster was allowed to happen, questions are being raised about just how our mines are being operated and regulated.
Years ago, the mining company raised concerns about its ability to manage tailings from this mine. Despite this, production was ramped up, placing even greater strain on an already-stressed structure. Daily production of ore was increased from 18,000 tonnes per day in 2009 to more than 23,000 tonnes by 2014.
While structural assessments and contingency plans were called for, none were forthcoming. This event may just be the tip of the structural-failure iceberg when it comes to containing toxic mine waste. From 2009 to 2012, there were 12 “dangerous occurrences” reported at tailings ponds across B.C.
What else is at risk?
B.C.’s mining industry is expanding faster than ever. Two new mines are expected to start production this year, five more projects are permitted or under construction, seven expansions are approved and 20 more mines and expansions are moving through the environmental assessment process.
With timelines reduced and processes streamlined for environmental assessments to fast track new mine approvals, we can expect more of these kinds of devastating events.
It’s time to take another look at whether B.C. mining regulations are serving the economy, environment and our communities.
We’re asking the B.C. government to:
- Implement immediate, province-wide mandatory inspections of all tailings ponds with assessed high-risk structures
- Delay approval of any new B.C. mines until tailings management plans demonstrate they’re using best available technologies instead of low-cost driven alternatives