Mount Polley Mine tailings spill: the consequence of a self-regulating industry

By Reem Hamzeh,

Failure of the tailings pond dam at the Mount Polley Copper/Gold Mine on August 4, 2014 released approximately 17 million cubic meters of wastewater and 8 million cubic meters of toxic tailings into Hazeltine Creek, Quesnel Lake and Polley Lake1 in British Columbia.

The extent of the spill can be perceived in the satellite images2 of the region before and after the dam failure and in the video3 below.

July 29, 2014

August 5, 2014

 

 

 

 

The question that keeps coming to mind is how could this have happened?

Energy and Mines Minister Bill Bennet has announced that an independent investigation of the tailings pond breach as well as a review of all tailings ponds in B.C. will take place. The Mount Polley Mine investigation will issue a final report by January 31st, 20154.

Regardless of the investigation underway to determine the actual cause of the dam failure, it has become clear that this event was indeed predictable and that the fault lies with the operating company, Imperial Metals. Several reports have surfaced revealing that Imperial Metals was aware of the high level of tailings in the pond. A report by Brian Olding, an environmental consultant commissioned by the Williams Lake First Nation Indian band and Imperial Metals, stated in 2011 that the tailings pond was accumulating water so quickly it would need to discharge about 1.4 million cubic meters of water a year to maintain a stable level and that

“a sustainable means of discharging excess water is required because dam building cannot continue indefinitely”5.

The Olding report was also critical of the company’s lack of a contingency plan in case of a tailings ponds failure5. The engineering company, Knight Piésold Consulting, who had designed the Mount Polley tailings pond containment system, stated that it had sent a letter to Imperial Metals in 2011 informing them that they would not continue as the engineers of the tailings pond system and that

“the embankments and overall tailings impoundment are getting large and it is extremely important that they be monitored, constructed and operated properly to prevent problems in the future”6.

Last but not least, in May 2014, the B.C. Ministry of Environment issued a warning to Imperial Metals that the height of the wastewater in the tailings pond exceeded authorized levels7.

If this problem has been ongoing for the past three years, then why couldn’t the regulating authority do anything to prevent this disaster?

Resource and budget cuts in the provincial Environmental Assessment Office have had considerable impact on the government’s enforcement capabilities and the staff do not consider “the enforcement of EA certificates to be within their mandate”8. This perception is also a result of the vague responsibilities for compliance monitoring listed in the Mines Act and the Environmental Management Act. The Mines Act states that an inspector may inspect a mine9, and similarly the Environmental Management Act10 also employs the term “may” and neither Acts require inspections as a duty to ensure compliance. Consequently the problem lies in monitoring and enforcing the policies that regulate B.C. mines and without the resources to do so, we cannot protect the environment from disasters such as the Mount Polley Mine tailings spill.

References:

1. British Columbia Ministry of Environment (2014). “Mount Polley Mine Tailings Pond Breach, Likely, August 4, 2014”. Retrieved from http://www.env.gov.bc.ca/eemp/incidents/2014/mount-polley/ Accessed on October 1, 2014.

2. NASA Earth Observatory (2014). “Dam Breach at Mount Polley Mine in British Columbia” Retrieved from http://earthobservatory.nasa.gov/IOTD/view.php?id=84202 Accessed on October 6, 2014.

3. Global News (2014). “Aerials of destruction caused by Mount Polley Mine tailings pond breach” Retrieved from http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vg3yd8GPSnA Accessed on October 6, 2014.

4. Global News (2014). “Government announces independent investigation into Mount Polley” Retrieved from http://globalnews.ca/news/1512966/government-to-announce-mount-polley-investigation-details/ Accessed on October 1, 2014.

5. The Canadian Press (2014). “First Nations chief: Warning about B.C. tailings pond ‘ignored’ ” Retrieved from http://www.macleans.ca/news/canada/warnings-about-b-c-tailings-pond-growth-ignored-before-collapse/ Accessed on October 1, 2014.

6. CBC News (2014). “Mount Polley mine: Ex-engineers warned tailings pond ‘getting large’ ” Retrieved from http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/british-columbia/mount-polley-mine-ex-engineers-warned-tailings-pond-getting-large-1.2732314 Accessed on October 1, 2014.

7. CBC News (2014). “Mount Polley mine tailings pond breach followed years of government warnings” Retrieved from http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/british-columbia/mount-polley-mine-tailings-pond-breach-followed-years-of-government-warnings-1.2728591 Accessed on October 1, 2014.

8. Stano, M. (2011). “The Raven Mine A Regulatory & Fiscal Black Hole? A look at environmental enforcement & securities at mines in BC” Retrieved from

http://www.coalwatch.ca/sites/default/files/RavenCoal_BlackHole_MayaStano_ELC-Spring2011.pdf Accessed on October 1, 2014.

9. Mines Act (1996) Chapter 293 Section 15 (1). Retrieved from http://www.canlii.org/en/bc/laws/stat/rsbc-1996-c-293/latest/rsbc-1996-c-293.html Accessed on October 1, 2014.

10. Environmental Management Act (2014) Chapter 53 Division 2 (109) Section Retrieved from http://www.bclaws.ca/civix/document/LOC/complete/statreg/–%20E%20–/Environmental%20Management%20Act%20[SBC%202003]%20c.%2053/00_Act/03053_10.xml#section109 Accessed on October 1, 2014.