Mount Polley mine owner Imperial Metals Corp. only recently joined national mining association

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      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 zoneIn 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."




      Aug 9, 2014 at 10:17am

      Another one of Canada's big secrets - backroom Ball Dancing with the mining industry. Tailing ponds are nothing new and has been a mainstay of operations in the mining industry worldwide.

      In Canada the tailing ponds problem continues and will last for many hundreds of years with guaranteed failures waiting to occur. Whether it is “coffer” dams, valleys filled with obscene toxic dumps from mines, arsenic filled mines – the majority abandoned by the industry itself or the Alberta Tar Sands that illustrates so clearly the state of total contempt government regulators and industry have for the Canadaian environment.

      Politicians are like baby diapers, the more they get filled with BS the more often you need to change them.

      The situation is seriously problematic. There are likely many thousands of these tailings “ponds”. They are left unattended and are like a time bomb. They leach multiple minerals into waters, including heavy metals, not to mention arsenic. For every gold mine there is a tailings pond of arsenic waiting to poison everything around it including birds, animals, people and ground water. Arsenic continues to be used to extract gold from crushed ore. Who allows such toxic poisons to be used? Remember the diapers!

      The dilemma has always been – use restrictive regulations through the mining Acts at both levels of government and lose important “tax” money or use “controlled” regulations that are lax and get lots of tax money. Of course governments at all levels pick the second option. Regulators, our parliamentarians and provincial legislative bodies will smile, hug babies while stealing their lollipops and give the “appearance” of being innocent victims when an accident occurs. As many know Canada is no different from the US where laws and regulations are written by Corporations that hand these on a silver platter to regulators. Payola!

      Canada's “rulers” are satisfied with pretending to be concerned. In the case of the mining industry they write very permissive regulations if at all, and the regulations that do exist are not enforced or left to wait for a crisis to develop. They are all content to hide serious problems with the environmental pollution.

      I recall one event with Inco at their Sudbury Nickel mine, the largest nickel producer in Canada. Many years back the government of the day threatened to impose severe controls on pollution control

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      Jimmy James

      Aug 9, 2014 at 2:04pm

      QUOTE: The original idea, she stated, was that what are known as "tailings flurry" would go into the impoundment area.

      CORRECTION: That should be "tailings slurry" not "flurry".

      A slurry is fine solids undissolved in a liquid. In the case of typical mine tailings, think something like your household deck, wheel barrel concrete mix only with no gravel, just sand or finer and a little more water in it than you would usually use to get a good set. The higher amount of water is to get it to flow through several kms of pipe before deposit onto tailings beach.

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      400 ppm

      Aug 9, 2014 at 6:18pm

      "The B.C. environment ministry has stated that it doesn't expect any impact to aquatic life. "

      And the Japanese gov't deemed the Arakawa the cleanest river in Japan, according to Mr Dunphy. The lie has to be as big as the destruction when your culture is insane.

      Any chance we could get a few stories about what this is doing to our health?

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      Aug 10, 2014 at 5:17am

      Just one minor correction/addition to Michel's comment: arsenic is commonly found in rock, and especially gold ores, and is "made available" to the environment when the rock is opened up and crushed. Cyanide is used to extract microscopic gold particles from crushed ore, and if it escapes into the groundwater or surface water, as it often does, the results can be truly devastating.

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      Backseat Driver

      Aug 10, 2014 at 9:08am

      The Straight is reaching with this one. Chastising a company for NOT joining the big boys' lobby group? The Canadian Mining Association, if anything, would be pushing the Federal Government to over rule Provincial guidelines or to make a uniform mining code for the entire country, which they could then exert influnce on from a central location, things of that nature. They are not the ones who regulate the industry as a whole or their own members in part. Lobbyists just get cheques in the mail that pay their salaries and then go to work in their three piece cheerleader costumes to Rah Rah MP's day and night. Take aim at something more central to the issue, like dam safety or monitoring, no wait, Imperial got A's in those areas. Maybe it's time to find another story.

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      Herb Barbolet

      Aug 11, 2014 at 8:38pm

      Seriously Charlie, you know I love you, but Mount Polley is a disaster and writing about it in clinical, pseudo-scientific terms is unacceptable.

      You might take a lesson from They actually deal with the issues of corruption, impact on the First Nations, corporate malfeasance, government bought by donations. Yeah, amazing and nothing like it in the mainstream - or what I thought was the more - progressive media.

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