Local environmental groups and experts are concerned about the potential impacts of a tailings pond breach at Mount Polley mine in northern B.C.
Craig Orr, the executive director of Watershed Watch Salmon Society, said these kinds of spills tend to have both short-term and long-term impacts, the extent of which might not be known for a decade.
“I think anybody that’s concerned with the health of the Fraser has to be very concerned with this disaster in the making, and I don’t think that’s too strong of a word for this, because what I’ve seen in terms of some of the chemicals in the tailings, you know, zinc, arsenic, mercury, lead, cadmium, copper, things like that—some of those have very short-term toxic impacts, and some of them have longer-term…impacts on aquatic life,” Orr said in a phone interview.
Orr is particularly concerned about an estimated 1.5 million sockeye salmon that are expected to return to the Quesnel Lake system, which has been affected by the tailings pond breach.
“Although it’s still early to firm up that number, Quesnel has been one of the stronger returns of sockeye over the years,” he said.
“So we don’t know what the impacts of this will be, but I think people have to be very concerned, because it will persist in some of the sediments, the mine-tailing chemicals and heavy metals, and it has potential for both short-term and long-term impacts in the Fraser.”
Jens Wieting, forest and climate campaigner at Sierra Club BC, said the incident that occurred Monday (August 4) should be a “wake-up call” for B.C.
“Because we have similarly dangerous industrial projects across the province, and lots of new projects with similar risks are being proposed all the time, and the same company, Imperial Metals, is proposing a copper mine and a gold mine project in Clayoquot Sound, which is just one example of another fantastic ecologically important region that people care about in B.C. and elsewhere, and where we should not even have a discussion around a project like this with this level of risk,” he told the Straight by phone.
“It’s really important for the government to take action quickly in the affected region and take a closer look at our environmental standards, our planning, monitoring, and risk response, because we have similar risks in many parts of the province, and we must not allow catastrophes of this kind in B.C.”
Orr said the incident raises “obvious concerns” over Canada weakening its environmental protection legislation.
“It seems like the environment is less important to government than it ever has been, but it’s still very, very important to British Columbians, especially the Fraser River,” he said.
Bill Bennett, B.C.’s minister responsible for energy and mines, called the tailings pond breach “a serious incident that should not have happened”.
“We are devoting every appropriate resource working with local officials to clean up the site, mitigate any impacts to communities and the environment, and investigate the cause of the breach,” he said in a statement.
“We will determine the cause of the event and we are determined to prevent an incident like this from happening again.”
B.C. NDP Leader John Horgan also commented on the incident, stating that the breach “has the potential to have a devastating effect on people, livestock and wild animals in the region for many years to come”.