A B.C. environmentalist who focuses on mine safety says the public should treat company and provincial government claims about the Mount Polley tailings-pond disaster with great skepticism.
"It was really wonderful the regional district took those pictures—those aerial photos from a helicopter—and then released them to the media," Glenda Ferris told the Georgia Straight by phone from her home in the Houston area. "If that had been a ministry person, we never would have seen those photos."
Ferris said that the public should remember those images near the town of Likely because officials will soon assure everyone that the situation is under control.
Reportedly, 10 million cubic metres of water were released when the tailings dam was breached.
"They're going to tell us that everything is fine," Ferris predicted. "They're going to tell us that they tested the tailings and they're not toxic or that they have just minor little amounts of mercury and cadmium in them, and everything is going to be fine."
Ferris based this comment on personal experience dealing with the industry after the Equity silver mine spilled 10,000 gallons of concentrated sulphuric acid into her watershed in November 1981.
That led her to get involved in mine safety at a national level, winning her awards for her environmental work.
"I'm tired of a society that doesn't value the natural world," Ferris said. "I'm tired of a society that has amnesia."
Imperial Metals Corporation was mining copper, silver, and gold at the Mount Polley mine.
Ferris emphasized that anything that's in the mineralization of the ore bodies at the mine will be in the tailings.
She added that there are never recovery rates of 100 percent, so even copper will likely be in the tailings.
"Copper is toxic to the entire food web starting with algae and ending with fish in aquatic ecosystems," she said.
She said it's important for people to recognize that a metal like cadmium is toxic in parts per billion, not parts per million.
Despite this, she predicted that the company and government will "try in a little while to put everyone to sleep again".
"It's perfectly feasible that toxicity would get to the Fraser River," Ferris said. "It's such a massive spill. It's not the end of it because if these tailings begin to release metals, this will not be a three-day event. This will be a long-term chronic release of heavy metals through time."
The company has said that its "first priority is the health and safety of our employees and neighbours".
"Exact quantities of water and tailings discharged have yet to be determined," Imperial Metals stated in an August 5 news release. "The tailings are alkaline with an average pH of 8.5 and are not acid generating."
Ferris said that it's possible that the company is telling the truth in this instance.
However, she also noted that there was a "halo around one of the ore bodies at Mount Polley that was full of sulphides".
"So some of the tailings may well be, in fact, acid-generating," she said.
Ferris noted that sulphides will oxidize when exposed to the atmosphere. "Then the next time water flows—water, snowmelt, the creek goes up—sulphuric acid is formed. That's H2SO4."
It's been widely reported that the tailings pond was contained by an earthen dam.
Ferris said that if the dam was made of earth with a clay core, the company should never have dumped water in the tailings area.
"Dams that are meant to hold water have huge rocks," she said.
That's because if there's high winds, waves form, crashing against the wall.
"For whatever reason, the company, over apparently a number of years, has not maintained that as a semidry tailings impoundment," Ferris concluded. "They have allowed the water to build up. That hydrostatic pressure is probably the cause of the breach in the dam. Once it started to go, of course, the tailings become liquefied, so they're carried out—the solids are carried out with the water."
She said a simple step would have prevented this: creating a separate pond to hold excess water.
"They didn't build a pond to hold this water," she said. "They just dumped it into the tailings impoundment and turned the whole tailings impoundment into a disaster waiting to happen."
She blamed poor regulation, saying if nobody is inspecting the geotechnical integrity of containment structures, accidents like this will happen "again and again and again".
"This is the product of deregulation," Ferris claimed. "This is a product of being buddies with the mining industry and saying, 'Well, you guys know what's best. You do what's best.'"
She said that instead of expressing concern about rising water levels in the tailings pond earlier this year, government officials should have ordered the company to build a separate settling pond for the water.
Ferris added that regulators also had the option of ordering the company to build a treatment plant.
"There are simple solutions to the problem that happened at Mount Polley," she said.
Ferris also scoffed at Imperial Metals president Bryan Kynoch's comment earlier this week that he would drink the water from the tailings pond.
"If the water were that clean, they would have been allowed to discharge that water," she said.
Various terms have been used to describe the mess, including "mud", "sand", and "sludge".
"The accurate description is toxic mine waste," Ferris declared. "It is full of heavy metals."