Environmentalist credits regional district for filming tailings flowing from Mount Polley mine

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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."

The Cariboo Regional District distributed this footage of the incident.

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."

Comments (8) Add New Comment
Betty Henderson
Great article! "Wake-up Call"??? WHY are we still sleeping???? How many wake-up calls do we NEED? This is a terrible Disaster, there is NO minimizing it ! The Government is RESPONSIBLE for this ! Where is the Oversight? What happened to the inspections? It's plain and simple it's "cover your Ass time" ! YES I am MAD , yes I am outraged, YOU should be too ! Look at this! All people should be out DEMANDING Prosecutions, NOT fines, they are a JOKE ! Put those responsible in Jail for crimes against our Earth and the Persons affected here ! That's all of us ! I have had it with this BS !
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Bevin Bigalky
This disaster will cost billions to fix. The mine will likely declare bankruptcy and the taxpayers of this province will have to pay. We will lose animals, fish and all sorts of wildlife, tourist industries will fail, farmers will be devastated, towns and cities will suffer just because of the lack of oversize by the provincial government and by the mine. They should all be thrown in jail.
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Black Heart
"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."

What she says makes sense, doesn't it? And the pattern of donations to the Liberal party by Imperial is telling. Someone posted this in Huffpost:

http://contributions.electionsbc.gov.bc.ca/pcs/SA1ASearchResults.aspx?Co...

Note the extra large donation made at the end of 2011.
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James Blatchford
Sure glad Bill 'Bulldozer' Bennett is on the file...wouldn't want the mining industry to suffer any reputational damage on account of one lousy tailing pond leak. See! This is rare! Our mines are safe!
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@Black Heart
Wow, looks like Imperial practically funded the entire Liberal party for the past 8 years.
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MOE Environmental Protection Program
I have worked in the above for over 20 years. I have never seen such disintegration of a mostly working program structure as I have over the past 5 years. Executive decisions and disrespect of line staff knowledge and input to changes of processes have led to the loss of many valuable staff. This on top of ongoing cutbacks and the undertones from management to not slow down the economic engine has made this "MOE "Environmental Protection" program a bit of a joke. Many line staff employees feel demoralized by not being able to do the proper and right things to protect the environment.
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Martin Dunphy
MOE:

Want to talk about a few things off the record? Email me at m_dunphy@straight.com or call 604-730-7045 and leave a message if I'm not in.
Anonymity guaranteed. Tell your friends and coworkers.
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Lee L
@Martin Dunphy

Did you contact the person with the 'Environmental' job at the minesite as well? There will no doubt be such a position. It would be interesting to hear what he/she can say in the light of this spill.

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