The B.C. Ministry of Environment has quietly granted the Mount Polley Mining Corporation permission to drain mining waste directly into Quesnel Lake, B.C.’s deepest fjord lake and a source of drinking water for residents of Likely, B.C., as part of a “long-term water management plan.”
The wastewater discharge permit comes nearly three years after the collapse of the Mount Polley mine tailings pond spilled an estimated 25 million cubic metres of mining waste into Quesnel Lake, in what is considered the worst mining disaster in Canadian history.
No charges and no fines have been laid for the spill that cost B.C. taxpayers an estimated $40 million in cleanup costs and that B.C.’s chief mine inspector, Al Hoffman, found was the result of “poor practices” and “non-compliances.”
Some critics feel the new wastewater discharge permit simply grants Mount Polley the permission to continue polluting Quesnel Lake.
“The permit really adds insult to injury,” said Nikki Skuce, project director for Northern Confluence, an initiative based out of Smithers that aims to improve land-use decisions in B.C.’s salmon watersheds.
The permit grants Mount Polley, owned by Imperial Metals, permission to release diluted wastewater collected in the mine’s drainage ditches to be piped deep into Quesnel Lake 45 metres below the surface.
“To the layperson that might sound okay, but in digging down deeper what Imperial Metals asked for was for a huge increase in the amount of heavy metals, like selenium, copper, arsenic and others, they can release into the lake,” Skuce said.
“They come up with this plan and it’s to continue pollution, to allow for long-term pollution to go into Quesnel Lake.”
“We’re only two years into the disaster and it is not clear what the impacts are. Salmon run in four year cycles and yet they’re permitting more pollution.”
B.C. Government Unaware ‘What True Consultation Means,’ Say Locals
In a press release, the B.C. Ministry of Environment said the permit was granted after extensive community and First Nations consultation.
Local municipalities as well as local First Nations were vocally against the permit, however.
“Ongoing concerns raised by members of the Xat’sull (Soda Creek) and T’exelc (Williams Lake Indian Bands), as well as formal opposition taken by local organization such as the Likely Chamber of Commerce, Concerned Citizens of Quesnel Lake, and local members of the First Nation Women for Responsible Mining clearly indicate that [Mount Polley’s] long-term water management plan, as currently proposed, is unacceptable.”
Jacinda Mack from the Xat’sull First Nation gathered 250 signatures from predominantly local First Nations who opposed the plan.
“There was extensive consultation,” Richard Holmes, fisheries biologist and resident of Likely, B.C., told DeSmog Canada, “however, the government, who should be governing fairly for all, has lost its way.”
“The government is bound by extremely weak regulations and law that applies to mining and the company took full advantage of this in spite of the overall opposition by the First Nations and especially the local residents who call this area their home.”
“The provincial government has no idea what true consultation with action really means. Consultation to them remains a catchphrase term meaning ‘this is what we are going to approve…thanks for listening to our plan,’ “ Holmes said.
“I would have supported their efforts to continue to mine if they were better environmental stewards,” he said.
Skuce, who has participated in numerous community consultation processes related to B.C. mines, said communities often feel government engagement is one-sided.
“Government often speaks about robust public engagements with communities and First Nations but quite often it’s an extremely technical one-way engagement,” Skuce, who participated in the public engagement process, said.
“It’s not a process that is meant to make people’s voices heard.”
After submitting comments to the Ministry of Environment during the public consultation process, Skuce was told by the ministry to direct her questions about the permit directly to Mount Polley.
“What is not clear is where my questions go. Are they just sent to the company? Does the government monitor the company’s intake and response to those questions?” Skuce said.
“And who is holding this company to account? Just us, the public?”
“It really sheds a light on the extent to which there is regulatory capture in this province.”
Holmes said the original permit for the Mount Polley mine in the 1990s prevented the company from discharging water from the site into nearby lakes.
“And look where we are now,” he said. “We feel deceived.”
Imperial Metals Major B.C. Liberal Donor
Since 2005 Imperial Metals and the Mount Polley Mining Corporation have donated $195,010 to the B.C. Liberals. B.C.'s political donation rules are some of the weakest in the country and place no limits on corporate donations.
Ugo Lapointe, MiningWatch Canada’s program coordinator, said it is concerning that major political donor Imperial Metals has not been held accountable for the tailings pond collapse.
“The key message to Canadians is this was the biggest mining spill in Canadian history and there have been zero sanctions and zero fines, and certainly that’s not because of lack of evidence of damage to the environment,” Lapointe told DeSmog Canada in a previous interview.
MiningWatch launched a private prosecution against Imperial Metals and the B.C. government for violation of the federal Fisheries Act. The company escaped those charges recently, after the case was blocked by federal government lawyers.
Holmes said the lack of accountability in B.C. for companies like Imperial Metals, which are also major political donors, is troubling.
“It’s a worrisome trend in a democracy such as in Canada when the corporations dictate the outcome of government decisions through their lobbying for weaker regulations to say nothing of the scandalous practice of corporate donations to our Liberal government,” he said.
Skuce said the high level of political donations in the province appear to give mining companies outsized political influence.
“It’s hard for the public to have confidence that the high contributions these companies make don’t have influence in the process,” she said, adding the circumstances make British Columbians suspicious of favourable industry permits.
“What we have in B.C. is a government trying to say to the public that everything is okay now, that they’ve fixed everything. But the story on the ground is that they’ve continued permitting pollution and aren’t going to hold the company accountable for the spill,” Skuce said.
Image: Mount Polley mine tailings pond collapse, August 2014. Photo: Cariboo Regional District via Youtube