Mount Polley mine owner Imperial Metals Corp. only recently joined national mining association
The company at the centre of the Mount Polley mining disaster was "in the early stages" of implementing measures to ensure safe operation of its tailings, according to the Mining Association of Canada.
The association's president and CEO, Pierre Gratton, told the Georgia Straight by phone that Imperial Metals Corporation has been a member for only two years.
"Smaller companies tended not to join us," Gratton said from Ottawa. "We tended to represent the bigger companies. What we've put in place through our Towards Sustainable Mining initiative is a system that frankly, only the major companies would ever have the resources to build and implement on their own."
Imperial Metals Corporation's management team has been involved in the operation and/or construction of seven mines over the past two decades, according to the company's website.
Approximately 10 million cubic metres of water containing toxic mine waste leaked from its tailings impoundment into Hazeltine Creek and Polley Lake on August 4. This prompted a ban on the use of local water for residents of the Cariboo town of Likely.
The Mining Association of Canada created tailings guides beginning in 1998. It has characterized its approach as "the global standard".
Gratton said this information is made available to smaller companies "to bring them up to a capacity level that they wouldn't otherwise have".
When asked why companies sometimes decide not to join the national association, Gratton responded, "They have to pay."
He then clarified his answer by saying there are other explanations.
"We work at the national level so our mandate is primarily working with the federal government," Gratton said. "So for many years, only companies with mines in multiple jurisdictions tended to join our association. Smaller companies with one or two mines in the same province...would sort of rely on the provincial association to liaise with us and provide them with the federal support they needed."
The Mining Association of Canada has a crisis-management planning guide for incidents ranging from medical emergencies to natural disasters to accidental releases of materials, including tailings-dam failures.
The Straight asked Gratton if Imperial Metals Corporation followed the guide when its CEO publicly stated that he would drink water from the company's tailing pond.
"I'm sure they'll be doing a lessons-learned and, you know, doing an assessment of how prepared they were for something like this," Gratton responded. "Nobody ever thinks this sort of thing is going to happen to you."
He added that it's too early to speculate what caused the dam to fail at the Mount Polley mine.
"Some of what I'm reading now is that the instruments that they had to measure pressure in the dam were showing no change," he said. "There was no indication that there was any pressure on the dam, so it's going to take a while to figure out why."
Environmentalist Glenda Ferris, who lives in the Houston area of B.C., told the Straight by phone that she thinks the hydrostatic pressure became so strong that it likely punctured a hole in the earthen dam, leading to the massive leak.
Ferris, a mine-safety activist, said this is typically why earthen dams fail.
The original idea, she stated, was that what are known as "tailings slurry" would go into the impoundment area.
"It decants water to the recycle part, because the mill requires recycled water," she added. "Then in theory, in the rest of this big two-kilometre-square structure, the tailings are allowed to dry out."
However, she questioned whether the company erroneously placed the tailings-impoundment area on top of a groundwater-discharge zone or even an artesian zone. In artesian zones, water is under pressure and can rise.
Ferris speculated that perhaps this explains why "the water balances were out of whack" and why too much water reached the impoundment area as far back as 2009.
The Mining Association of Canada's Gratton said that Imperial Metals Corporation is considered small by industry standards. He suggested that some might even consider it to be a "junior" company, even though it has operating mines.
"When you're reliant on just one or two mines for cash flow, your resources are usually pretty limited and your head offices tend to be quite small," Gratton said.
He maintained that this is why his association's TSM initiative is so valuable to smaller operators. "We have had a long run of no instances and we were pretty proud of that," Gratton added.
However, Ferris said that she can't fathom why a mining executive would say he would drink water from a tailings pond, or how this could be in accordance with the crisis-management planning guide.
She also questioned recent statements that preliminary tests of Quesnel Lake and Quesnel River reveal that both met provincial and federal drinking-water standards. Further tests will occur before people will be allowed to resume drinking the water.
"They said they sampled in three locations," she said.
However, Ferris added that if the samples were taken from the surface of the lake, it wouldn't provide the same results as deeper water.
"If you sample 30 feet down or 100 feet down where these people's intakes are for their wells, you will get a different water quality because the lake is set up like a layer cake in thermoclines," she said.
The B.C. environment ministry has stated that it doesn't expect any impact to aquatic life.
Again, Ferris is skeptical.
"Fish are much more sensitive to copper than humans are, and reproductive failure is part of the heavy-metals mix," she said. "So when they say this meets drinking-water standards, it may well not meet safety [requirements] for aquatic life."