By Ana Simeon and Ugo Lapointe
On August 4 last year, Quesnel Lake residents and communities
along the Fraser River were eagerly anticipating one of the
largest sockeye returns in recent history.
What they got instead was a nightmare: over 24 billion litres
of mine waste burst through Imperial Metals’ Mount Polley dam
into their watershed.
Mount Polley is the largest mining waste spill in Canada’s
history. The consequences and overall costs of this disaster
concern us all, including a steep cost on the industry’s
reputation and public trust.
Yet a year later, the mine is running again under a restricted
permit. While both the company and the B.C. government attempt
to be reassuring, many questions remain unanswered.
What are the long-term impacts of the tailings breach on the
local ecosystems? Initial water bans warned people not to drink
or bathe. Quesnel Lake rose seven centimetres after the spill
and its temperature increased by 2.5 degrees. The long-term
effects of contaminants found in samples will need monitoring.
The toxins are of concern to human health, animals, and aquatic
Despite approval to restart, there are still no long-term plans
regarding site clean-up costs, water treatment, and mining
wastes management. The B.C. government is not being
precautionary enough. Locally affected First Nations and
communities are being forced to live with risks and too few
What kind of financial assurance do we have from Imperial
Metals to cover clean-up costs, damages, perpetual care of the
site, or costs from other potential failures? Imperial Metals
has lost over 40 percent of its share value since the disaster
last year; investors are clearly concerned about the risks
associated with its mining operations.
We should be too. Imperial Metals is still subject to two
investigations that could lead to civil and criminal charges
against it, which in turn could lead to costly sanctions or
litigations. The public could be left on the hook if the
company is unable to pay the bill.
The independent review of the Mount Polley disaster predicted
two tailings dam failures every decade in B.C. We should not
have to ask which two rivers or watersheds are next.
We need to prevent future failures by strengthening and
updating our outdated mining laws—some of which were written
over 150 years ago. The government’s commitment to review the
Mining Code is welcomed, but it needs to be broad enough to
address the full range of necessary changes.
Mining shouldn’t mean toxic fish and water bans. As we
commemorate the one-year anniversary of the Mount Polley
disaster, let’s commit to moving out of the gold rush mentality
and into an era of modern, more responsible mining.
Ana Simeon is with Sierra Club B.C. Ugo Lapointe is with
MiningWatch Canada. This article was also published in the