Clayoquot Action is watching closely how Imperial Metals handles their Mount Polley Mine disaster. Why? Because the same company has plans for 2 new mines right here in Clayoquot Sound.
On April 1st an application filed by Imperial Metals for a restricted re-start of its Mount Polley mine was accepted for formal review. The BC government announced a 30-day public comment period with a deadline of April 30th. A decision on whether or not to issue the permits will be made in early June.
Last August 4th the tailings dam at Mount Polley burst, releasing 25 million cubic metres of toxic effluent and tailings solids into Polley Lake and Hazeltine Creek, then downstream into Quesnel Lake. It was one of the largest mining disasters in the world. Quesnel Lake is one of the deepest and clearest fjord lakes in the world, home to one quarter of the Fraser River sockeye run, with grizzly bears roaming the protected areas at the head of the lake. The entire region is the traditional territory of Northern Secwepemc First Nations.
Neither government nor Imperial Metals prepared
The spill response from both the government and Imperial Metals demonstrated that neither party had planned or prepared for such a major disaster. Eight months later, Imperial is removing some of the toxic sludge from Hazeltine Creek, but has done nothing about the cloud of toxic silt floating around Quesnel Lake and flushing downstream towards the Fraser River. There is still huge uncertainty about how long-lasting the effects of the breach will be. Imperial Metals has estimated the total cleanup cost at $67.4 million dollars.
Three investigations were launched. In their January 2015 report, the blue ribbon panel appointed to determine the cause of the disaster firmly rejected “any notion that business as usual can continue.” They stated that the tailings dam failed when an underlying layer of glacial till sheared because the dam had been built up at a steeper angle than planned (or even normally permitted), to contain the rising waters within. At the end of the day, the report concluded that building the Mount Polley tailings dam on a layer of glacial till was like loading a gun; building the dam up at too steep an angle was like pulling the trigger.
Imperial Metals applying to re-open Mount Polley Mine
Meanwhile Imperial Metals has applied to re-open Mount Polley at half-capacity using a former mine pit to hold the toxic tailings. There are some serious questions that need to be answered before such a rash move is made. As Minister of Mines Bill Bennett stated in February, “we are not going to be squeezed into making a decision prematurely”.
It is not known at what point that pit will start leaching effluent into the ground water. Whether Mt. Polley re-opens or not, water management will remain a concern due to the estimated average of 6 million cubic meters of water that falls on the site each year. This on-going water management problem is the reason the disaster occurred in the first place. Now Imperial is saying they will need to discharge water from the mine into some body of water—they are proposing either Hazeltine Creek or Quesnel River.
Imperial has already had an incident at the newly repaired dam. In March, in an unplanned event, water flowed from the satellite dike they built inside the breach down into the breach repair area.
Minister Bennett noted the Panel also said Imperial Metals didn’t do as much long-term planning or mid-term planning as they should, adding that the company must deliver their long-term plan. Where is that plan?
Many questions remain unanswered
What is behind the push to re-open Mount Polley Mine when so many questions remain unanswered? Is it really about the workers at the mine? There is still lots of cleanup work to do. Or is it about the fact that Imperial posted a net loss of $37 million last year? Surely Imperial understands that if you cut corners, you run the risk of paying far more to fix problems which could have been avoided at far less cost.
It seems premature to re-open the mine when criminal investigations are still underway. The RCMP raided Imperial Metals’ Vancouver office in February. What if the mine were re-opened, and it later turned out that it was being managed by criminals?
And if the Minister Responsible for Mining isn’t responsible, who is? Bill Bennett is in no position to approve the re-opening of the mine until the investigations are completed in June.
Please take a moment to let Premier Christy Clark know you do not want to see Imperial Metals’ Mount Polley Mine re-opened until the criminal investigations, the cleanup, and a long-term management plan incorporating the recommendations of the Mount Polley Review Panel are completed. Deadline for input is April 30th. Sign the petition here. When you sign, an email will be sent to Premier Clark, the Ministry of Mines and Imperial Metals.
Dan Lewis is Executive Director of Clayoquot Action.