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Disaster followup leaves critics unassured

Province a global leader in tailings storage, Bennett says
August 3, 2016 5:45 P.M.
The Mount Polley disaster as it appeared in the aftermath of the 2014 tailings dam failure.

Two years after the worst mining disaster in B.C. history, Energy and Mine Minister Bill Bennett has declared the province a global leader on mine tailings storage regulations.

“This Thursday marks two years since the tailings storage facility (TSF) dam at the Mount Polley Mine failed – that disaster was unprecedented in British Columbia, so we knew our government needed to take strong action,” Bennett said in a statement released Wednesday. 

“We cannot allow something like that to ever happen again in our province,” Bennett said before detailing measures taken since Aug. 4, 2014.

However, critics of the government’s lax policies and weak monitoring maintain that the TSF collapse — caused by a weak layer of material in the dam structure — should have never happened in the first place. The collapse sent 24 billion litres of process water, tailings and sludge into Quesnel Lake, a tributary of the Fraser River.

In an an opinion piece published Tuesday in various newspapers across the country, two residents of the area wonder if it will ever be the same again.

“Two years later, it is still unknown what the long-term effects will be, and numerous local families and businesses have suffered great losses and hardship,” wrote Richard Holmes of Likely and Jacinda Mack of Xat’sull First Nation. “Many of us doubt we can be made whole again — by the mine or the province.”


While some First Nations leaders and businesses in the area say they have recovered and are reassured by the province’s changes, Holmes and Mack contend that communities are still at risk.

They cite the May report by Auditor General Carol Bellringer, which was highly critical of B.C.’s poor enforcement and monitoring.

It’s the same report that Coun. Denis Walsh held up as the basis for his last week to back his contention that the Ajax Mine permitting process should be suspended. The other basis for his argument is the engineering panel review recommendations that arose from the Mount Polley disaster. Walsh said the Ajax TSF goes against the panel’s recommendations and that the panel wants to see an end to the practice of putting water and tailings behind dams. 

The panel’s recommendation wasn’t quite that specific, though. It recommended BAT — Best Available Technology — for new tailings facilities. BAT is based on soil mechanics and involves elimination of surface water, promoting unsaturated conditions with drainage, and compaction.

KGHM-Ajax maintains it has designed a buttressed TSF with thickened tailings in order to meet BAT standards. Those changes were made in response to the Mount Polley review recommendations. Whether they meet the province’s new standards will be a determination of the environmental assessment review.

Still, Walsh and other mine opponents in Kamloops are not reassured.

“It doesn’t matter how many rules they come up with, if they don’t enforce them, we’re not better off,” he said. “This is a city. This needs to be the gold standard.”

In his view, the auditor general’s report — more or less a repeat of a report written in 2010 by Bellringer’s predecesssor John Doyle — is ample evidence of the need for City council to adopt a firmer approach to the proposed mine, holding the proponent accountable to specific conditions.


Imperial Metals, which operates the Mount Polley Mine, was not penalized for the disaster and was allowed to resume operation in June.

Bennett said the panel review resulted in seven recommendations, all of which have been implemented.

“These changes put B.C. at the forefront of global standards for the safety of TSFs at mines operating in this province, and, in keeping with the independent expert engineering panel's recommendations, now include design standards for TSFs,” Bennett said. “Through these revisions to the mining code, government has addressed 20 of the 26 combined recommendations from the independent expert panel and the chief inspector of mines reports.”

He indicated as well that progress has been made on the auditor general’s findings, which will be addressed by the end of 2017.

“Work to address the remaining chief inspector of mines recommendations will be complete by summer of 2017 and the remaining 17 recommendations from the Office of the Auditor General’s report, also accepted by government, are expected to be addressed by the end of 2017.”

An environmental impact assessment on the Mount Polley disaster, released in June, concluded:

  • Remediation and restoration work is resulting in re-vegetation and recolonization of impacted areas, including Polley Lake, Hazeltine Creek, the mouth of Edney Creek and the West Basin of Quesnel Lake.
  • Geochemistry investigations continue to indicate the tailings are not acid-generating and have low leaching potential. 
  • Surface water and toxicity tests show total metals and turbidity are not toxic to various aquatic species and are decreasing in concentrations.

However, the report also noted that soil and sediment data show some metals exceed guidelines and/or standards.

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