David Suzuki: Mount Polley tailings breach should be a wake-up call for Canada’s mining industry

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      When a tailings pond broke at the Mount Polley gold and copper mine in south-central B.C., spilling millions of cubic metres of waste into a salmon-bearing stream, B.C. Energy and Mines Minister Bill Bennett called it an “extremely rare” occurrence, the first in 40 years for mines operating here. 

      He failed to mention the 46 “dangerous or unusual occurrences” that B.C’s chief inspector of mines reported at tailings ponds in the province between 2000 and 2012, as well as breaches at non-operating mine sites. 

      This spill was predictable. Concerns were raised about Mount Polley before the breach. CBC reported that B.C.’s Environment Ministry issued several warnings about the amount of water in the pond to mine owner Imperial Metals. 

      With 50 mines operating in B.C.—and many others across Canada—we can expect more incidents, unless we reconsider how we’re extracting resources.

      Sudden and severe failure is a risk for all large tailings dams—Mount Polley’s waste pond covered about four square kilometres, roughly the size of Vancouver’s Stanley Park.

      As higher-grade deposits become increasingly scarce, mining companies are opting for lower-grade alternatives that create more tailings. As tailings ponds grow bigger and contain more water and waste than ever before, they also become riskier.

      The average height of a Canadian tailings dam doubled from 120 metres in the 1960s to 240 metres today. Alberta writer Andrew Nikiforuk likens increasing mining industry risks to those of the oil sands.

      Open ponds of toxic slurry aren’t the best way to manage mining waste. Although there’s no silver-bullet solution, and more research funding on alternative technologies is needed, smaller underground mines are finding safer ways to deal with waste by backfilling tailings.

      Drying tailings or turning them to a paste before containment are two other options. Safer solutions cost more, making them less popular with profit-focused corporations. But surely B.C.’s $8-billion mining industry can afford to pay more for public and environmental safety.

      The government allows the mining industry to choose the cheapest way to deal with waste, and companies often lack adequate insurance to cover cleanup costs when accidents happen. Imperial Metals admits its insurance will likely fall far short of what’s required to repair the damage at Mount Polley.

      The mining industry and provincial and federal governments must do a better job of managing risks. But how can this happen when we’re facing unprecedented dismantling of Canada’s environmental regulations and decreased funding for monitoring and enforcement?

      Although the B.C. government rightly appointed an independent panel of three top mining engineers to review the cause of the Mount Polley breach and report back with recommendations, the lack of an environmental or cultural perspective on the panel makes it unlikely we’ll see meaningful industry reform. And even the most thorough reviews remain ineffective without implementation commitments—a point made clear by the federal government’s failure to act on the Cohen Commission’s 75 recommendations on the decline of Fraser River sockeye. 

      Canada’s mining industry must also work more closely with First Nations, some of which are challenging industrial activity in their territories. The Tahltan blockaded Imperial Metals’ nearly completed mine in the Sacred Headwaters, and the Neskonlith Indian Band issued an eviction notice to an Imperial subsidiary, which proposed an underground lead-and-zinc mine in Secwepemc Territory in the B.C. Interior. With the Supreme Court’s Tsilhqot'in decision affirming First Nations’ rights to land and resources within their traditional territories, we’re likely to see more defending their lands against mining and other resource extractions. 

      The Mount Polley tailings spill threatens two of B.C.’s most valued resources: salmon and water. As one of the largest sockeye runs enters the waterways to spawn, we must wait to find out the long-term repercussions for Polley Lake, Quesnel Lake, and aquatic life further downstream. 

      This disaster has eroded public trust in the mining industry and regulations governing it. If risks are too high and long-term solutions unavailable or too expensive, the only way to ensure that toxic tailings are kept out of our precious waterways and pristine landscapes may be to avoid mining in some areas altogether. 

      As the government rallying cry of “world-class safety standards” echoes in our ears, it’s time we lived up to our self-proclaimed reputation.

      Written with contributions from David Suzuki Foundation communications specialist Jodi Stark. Learn more at www.davidsuzuki.org.

      Comments

      8 Comments

      Our Way of Life

      Aug 26, 2014 at 5:40pm

      Our way of life would disappear without the mining industry, which is second only to the oil industry in its importance for our economy and lifestyle. Mining industries must be allowed to operate in the cheapest way possible so that we will not lose our standard of living. This is self-evident in the face of overseas pressures on our manufacturing sectors.

      Garnet

      Aug 26, 2014 at 8:01pm

      It was just a matter of time before Suzuki had to stick his big nose in. Regurgitating selective things he has read on the internet.

      "This spill was predictable"
      -- Why don't you wait until the three reports that are now in the works come back with the real facts (not internet MEDIA facts) before you make sweeping statements like that, your a 'professional scientist' not some kid in his parents basement.

      "Concerns were raised about Mount Polley before the breach"
      -- One guy (who turned out not to the a Foreman like he claimed)said this, and he also said he quit because of the stress (latter it was revealed he quit because he won a 1/2 million playing internet poker).

      "The government allows the mining industry to choose the cheapest way to deal with waste, and companies often lack adequate insurance to cover cleanup costs when accidents happen."

      -- This tailings dam was designed by an independent Engineering company,there is no evidence anyone choose a cheep design. But
      Suzuki has not problem staking his reputation on this. Imperial Metals has raised 100million of this clean-up, they are not relying on insurance.

      ....I could go on, but what's the use, were stuck with this "Fruit Fly" scientist.

      SPY vs SPY

      Aug 27, 2014 at 1:04pm

      The Real Name of the Game here is that Mining Companies are Self regulating. No Mining Company on Earth will ever decide to be prudent and spend money on safety concerns at the expense of Dividends.

      What BC needs is a Province Wide Insurance Policy that all Mining Companies pay into, such that there is enough money to cover the cost of any one incident.

      Way (Off Base) of Life - there is always a Race for the Bottom (Line) in all commerce - However neither you or any other Industrial Concern own The Air, Water or Land that is Polluted by by Mining.

      The Engineering Company that quit as Mount Polly's Inspecting Engineering Company - over a year ago - warned all concerned that the Tailings Dam was unsafe - Nothing Happened!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! Till the Dam Failed

      It is sad to say, that all the Mining Waste Rock (Tailings) that spilled out of the Tailings Pond - will simply be left where it is and will continue to leach its Toxins into Burns Lake for the next One Thousand Years!

      Because the Mount Polley Mining Company cannot afford to gather it all up and return it to the Tailings Pond.

      floyd racher

      Aug 27, 2014 at 4:49pm

      this spill is no wear near burns lake so get your facts right !!!!!

      SPY vs SPY

      Aug 27, 2014 at 6:58pm

      I stand corrected - The Dam Burst went into Polley Lake and then the toxins will flow into Quesnel Lake

      Other than that - everything I wrote is correct

      realist

      Aug 28, 2014 at 6:31am

      Dry stacking of tailings was scrapped back in the 70's as fears of acid rock drainage from tailings piles were greatly overstated. Mining companies fought the gov't knowing that in a province with a net-precipitation gain tailing ponds would not be suitable in all cases. As far as the first nations are concerned if we cede title to them on crown land get ready for them to come retroactively at all private land in the province.

      Dan Lowe

      Aug 28, 2014 at 1:31pm

      Good to see the industry shills are out in force causing doubt and spreading misinformation in these comments.

      If the government knew a year ago that the dam was over capacity, and told the company, then the company knew. If two separate engineering firms are presenting evidence that they warned about there not being sufficient shoring, then they knew there wasn't sufficient shoring.

      They gambled and lost and need to fix it, and we all need to prevent it from happening again. That's all that matters. I just don't understand how so many adults are so unwilling to take any responsibility whatsoever.

      Leigh McCracken

      Dec 6, 2014 at 1:00pm

      Seems to me to be a simple fix to future Debacles like Mt Polley--- Government "S" plural MUST have a guarantee in hand to ensure the mine owners have damage mitigation insurance MORE THAN Sufficient to repair ALL damage including environmental, before digging ONE shovelful of ore from the ground--- let the Businesses figure out what to charge for their product a la the free Capitalist System to cover insurance costs