The Mount Polley mine disaster occurred on August 4th, 2014 near Likely in the Cariboo region of Central British Columbia.
Below you will find an overview section describing the Mount Polley mine disaster, followed by our latest news and analysis on the subject.
Overview of the Mount Polley Mine Disaster
On August 4th, 2014 a four square kilometre sized tailings pond full of toxic copper and gold mining waste breached, spilling an estimated 25 billion litres of contaminated materials into Polley Lake, Hazeltine Creek and Quesnel Lake, a source of drinking water and major spawning grounds for sockeye salmon. According to Mount Polley mine records filed with Environment Canada in 2013, there were ”326 tonnes of nickel, over 400 tonnes of arsenic, 177 tonnes of lead and 18,400 tonnes of copper and its compounds placed in the tailings pond,” in 2012.
Following the Mount Polley mine disaster, a local state of emergency was declared for the Cariboo Regional District over drinking water contamination concerns.
Clean up efforts have led to a reconstructed Hazeltine Creek, although the contaminated slurry that made its way into Polley Lake and Quesnel Lake remains in the waterways. A drinking water ban was lifted within weeks of the spill and regular water testing is being conducted by the B.C. government, the Mount Polley mine, the University of Northern British Columbia and local residents.
An investigation into the cause of the spill revealed mine engineers failed to account for glacial silt underneath the tailings containment pond, leading to structural insufficiencies that caused the dam's collapse. No charges or fines have been laid in response to the disaster although an investigation into the spill by the province of B.C. is ongoing. Several local landowners and business operators affected by the spill have launched legal challenges to seek compensation for damages.
The Mount Polley mine is an open pit gold and copper mine in operation since 1997 and is owned by Imperial Metals.
Image: Global News
DeSmog Canada's latest news coverage on the Mount Polley mine disaster
If you look closely at almost any major environmental controversy in B.C. in the past decade, you’ll find one common denominator: industry-paid “professionals” were trusted with our province’s environmental protection.
This, folks, is what is often called leaving the fox to watch the hen house. But, if you’re the B.C. government, you come up with one of the greatest euphemisms of our age for it: “professional reliance.”
This system, implemented under the BC Liberals in the early 2000s, means “professionals” hired and paid for by mining, logging, natural gas and other industries, have been trusted with B.C.’s environmental protection.
Most people would call that a conflict of interest. But in B.C. this is called business as usual.
Until now … maybe.
Premier John Horgan said this week he's anxiously awaiting a court decision on charges against Mount Polley mining corporation brought in a private prosecution by former Xat’sull chief Bev Sellars for violations of B.C.’s environmental laws — but B.C.'s role in that case is still unclear.
B.C.'s crown prosecution service is responsible for the final decision on whether and how B.C. will proceed with the case regarding the 2014 tailings pond collapse that released 24 million cubic metres of mining waste into Hazeltine Creek and Quesnel Lake, a source of drinking water.*
Sellars filed the case on August 4th, 2017 — the last day a case under provincial law could be brought against the company due to a three-year statute of limitations — as a means of holding open the legal door for government, which had only recently come under NDP power.
The courts are expected to make a decision on the fate of the private prosecution by the end of January.
“If you’re in Vancouver this is way out in the middle of nowhere, but way out in the middle of nowhere is our backyard.”
Those are the words of Frederick Otilius Olsen Jr., the tribal president of a traditional Haida village on Prince of Wales Island, Alaska.
When I met him, he had travelled to Ketchikan, Alaska, to meet with officials about the risk posed by the mining boom across the border in British Columbia.
He stood on the boardwalk overlooking Ketchikan’s fishing fleet and waved his hands animatedly while he told me about how his culture — and southern Alaska’s economy — depends on salmon.
Canada has more mine tailings spills than most other countries in the world, according to a report from the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), which urges governments and the mining industry to improve safety, accountability and oversight.
During the last decade there have been seven known mine tailings spills in Canada, only one less than reported in China, which tops the list, says the report.
The UNEP assessment “Mine Tailings Storage: Safety Is No Accident” looks at 40 tailings accidents, including the 2014 Mount Polley disaster that saw 24 million cubic metres of sludge and mine waste flooding into nearby waterways.
In a surprise eleventh-hour move, indigenous activist and former Chief of the Xat’sull First Nation, Bev Sellars, has filed charges against the Mount Polley Mining Corporation, owned by Imperial Metals, for the mine disaster that saw 24 million cubic metres of mine waste released into Quesnel Lake on this day, three years ago.
The 15 charges, 10 under the B.C. Environmental Management Act and five under the B.C. Mines Act, were brought as part of a private prosecution against Mount Polley that can potentially be taken over by the new provincial government.
“We just couldn’t let it go,” Sellars said in a press release. “In my culture, we have a sacred responsibility not only to care for the land, waters, animals, and people living today, but also for the next seven generations to come.”
“I could not bear to witness B.C. simply stepping aside and giving up on its own responsibility to protect our shared environment and waters,” she stated.
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Christy Clark rounded out her final days in office with a parting gift — not to British Columbians but to a loyal BC Liberal donor, Taseko Mines. The company donated more than $130,000 to the BC Liberals, and now they’ve scooped up Clark’s prize.
While members of the Tsilhqot'in First Nation were being chased from their homes by an aggressive wildfire, Clark’s outgoing government approved exploratory permits for the company to dig up their traditional, and constitutionally protected, lands — an area so culturally and environmentally important that Harper’s Conservatives rejected federal permits twice.
But then again, the federal Conservative party can’t accept corporate donations. Over here in the “Wild West,” Clark’s BC Liberals can, and did.
By Jeremy J.Nuttall for The Tyee.
In the hours after the 2014 Mount Polley mine disaster, authorities were already concerned laws had been broken and the premier’s office was worried fallout from the tailing pond breach would “get in the way” of other planned mines, documents provided to The Tyee reveal.
Almost three years after the disaster, and weeks away from a deadline to lay charges under B.C.’s environment act, no charges have been laid and no fines levied.
The government’s initial reaction to the dam’s collapse is revealed in hundreds of pages of emails and other communications obtained through a freedom of information request and provided to The Tyee by Jessica Ross, an independent researcher and member of the BC Freedom of Information and Privacy Association.
Ross said she filed the FOI request almost three years ago and only received the documents July 4.
Provincial politics. There, I said them — two of the most boring words in the English language.
There’s no denying it. Provincial elections fail to capture the imaginations of citizens the way national or even international elections do.
Case in point: in the last B.C. provincial election, just 55 per cent of eligible voters cast a ballot — 13 per cent fewer than voted in the last federal election.
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.
Alaskans tired of living under the threat of B.C.’s poorly regulated mines are taking the matter to the state’s House Fisheries Committee in an effort to escalate an international response to ongoing issues such as the slow leakage of acidic waste from the deserted Tulsequah Chief Mine in northwest B.C. into the watershed of one of the richest salmon runs in the B.C./Alaska transboundary region.
On Thursday the committee will assess a resolution sponsored by several House Representatives “urging the United States government to continue to work with the government of Canada to investigate the long-term, region-wide downstream effects of proposed and existing industrial development and to develop measures to ensure that state resources are not harmed by upstream development in B.C.”
Although Tulsequah is a catalyst, concerns go deeper as B.C. is handing out permits for a clutch of proposed new mines close to the Alaskan border, including the KSM mine, the largest open-pit gold and copper mine in North America.