The Mount Polley mine tailings disaster occurred on Aug. 4, 2014, exactly two years ago today. At the time, I was in Norman Wells, working for the summer before beginning my graduate degree. As it turned out, I would go on to study environmental assessment, mining and sustainability in the Northwest Territories.
Over the past two years, I have closely followed the aftermath of the disaster as it unfolded. I read the expert panel investigation, which documented the structural failures that led to its collapse and subsequent release of 20 million cubic meters of contaminated water into surrounding water systems and lakes.
It went on to provide a comprehensive set of recommendations that would ensure such an event does not repeat itself. More recently, the institutional failures came to light when the Auditor General Carol Bellringer released a damning report, confirming the institutional failures and lax regulatory enforcement that preceded the disaster.
I also learned about the residents of Likely and Xat’sull, who didn’t receive water filters for months despite pressing concerns over drinking water quality; and the equivalent of three tins of salmon per person that Imperial provided in an ignorant attempt to compensate families that traditionally harvest 200 fresh salmon for their loss of food and economic security.
In November of last year – and to much less fanfare than Mount Polley – another mine tailings dam collapsed at an iron ore mine in Bento Rodrigues, Brazil, killing at least 17 people and displacing hundreds more. Despite government-issued sanctions, the penalty did not include compensation to those affected.
Even in Canada, where Aboriginal communities are wielding increasing environmental and political clout, no justice has been served to date. In fact, Imperial Metals has recently obtained approval to resume full production and is once again discharging water into Quesnel Lake.
To its credit, the B.C. government has introduced regulatory changes to strengthen safety of mine waste storage facilities, addressing many of the expert panel’s recommendations. However, it has circumvented some of the most crucial issues related to storing mine tailings in water, and the monitoring and enforcement system in B.C. remains bureaucratically outdated and riddled with opportunities for regulatory capture. It is but a dream to believe that another tailings disaster will not occur; the only question is when.
Metals and minerals are one of the most basic raw materials humanity depends on, and in today’s world, they also serve as a crucial resource for shifting our society away from fossil fuels towards a more sustainable energy future.
If we are to truly recognize Mount Polley for the wake up call it was, we need stronger laws and policies to protect our people and our environment, where accountable decisions are made based on facts and not willfully blind arrogance and greed.
We need leadership that can make tough choices and compromises in order to start reconciling non-renewable resource development with an increasingly complex and unpredictable world, in order to build a desirable and sustainable future.
Editor’s note: Nathalie Gingras is a graduate student in Environment, Resources and Sustainability.