MAC/20: Mines and Communities

Canadian Mount Polley spill: 'Things are not OK here' ...

Published by MAC on 2015-01-02
Source: The Province

... say five grappling with aftermath of massive tailings-pond breach

Mount Polley spill: 'Things are not OK here,' say five grappling with aftermath of massive tailings-pond breach
By Glenda Luymes

The Province

29 December 2014

It has been almost four months since one of the largest environmental crises in B.C. history.

On Aug. 4, the breach of an earthen dam, at one end of a four-kilometre-wide tailings pond at the Mount Polley open-pit copper and gold mine, led to the release of 10 million cubic metres of water and 4.5 million cubic metres of fine sand — the equivalent of 2,000 Olympic-sized swimming pools — into Polley Lake near Likely.

The slurry carried felled trees, mud, debris and possibly toxic elements and minerals, scouring the banks of Hazeltine Creek before washing into Quesnel Lake.

In the days following the tailings-pond breach, The Province interviewed five locals from different walks of life to gain insight on the disaster. We catch up with them again to see how their situations have changed.

Darlene Biggs

Hotel proprietor Darlene Biggs is throwing in the towel — for a few months, at least.

The Province reached the owner of the High Country Inn just as she was closing her doors for the winter, an unprecedented event for her in December.

“It’s a bloody mess,” she said. “There’s nothing really happening at the mine, so there’s no contractors coming in.”

The inn has long been a comfortable ‘home away from home’ for the crews that carry out contract work at the mine. Since the spill, Biggs has hosted a group connected to one of the three independent investigations currently underway at the mine, but since they’ve left business has been very slow.

“We need that mine to get a permit (and start up again) or this whole town is in danger,” she said.

As for the inn, Biggs will open her doors again “whenever I get a phone call that four more guys need a place.” But, she admitted, “I just don’t foresee it.”

E. Scott Borneman

Scott Borneman is grateful to have a paycheque this Christmas.

In the wake of the tailings-pond spill, the Mount Polley mine has been growing quieter and quieter. Dozens of workers have been laid off since the summer.

Previously an assayer at the mine, Borneman is now a mill operator, conducting fire checks, winterizing buildings and manning safety checkpoints.

“It’s a paycheque that ... could easily have disappeared,” he said in a recent interview.

Borneman is proud to be an Imperial Metals employee despite everything that’s happened.

“I take pride in my work. It irks me to hear people saying that this was a conspiracy. Why would we gamble on our livelihoods?” he asked.

Borneman is hoping the mine will be able to restart in a limited capacity come January. The future of his job — and those of hundreds of others in Likely and beyond — is contingent on several independent investigations into the spill, as well as provincial government approval.

“We’re doing the best we can here, and we can only hope for the best moving forward,” he said.

Richard Holmes

If there’s any good to come out of the Mount Polley disaster, fisheries biologist and longtime Likely resident Richard Holmes hopes it will be a new understanding of the costs associated with cleaning up an environmental disaster.
“To me, it seems like we’re at the very beginning of the cleanup, and we’re going to have to be at it for years to do it right,” he said.

Holmes, who runs a consulting firm and often works with First Nations communities in the area, wants the government to create a cleanup fund paid into by energy and resource extraction companies.

“I think we’re finding out that for something on this scale, millions of dollars just aren’t adequate,” he said.

Holmes believes a billion-dollar fund is needed in case of emergencies.

Imperial Metals vice-president of corporate affairs Steve Robertson told The Province restoration work at the mine site is going well, with the tailings leak plugged and the lake level back down to earlier heights. The second phase of the work — building a rock wall over the tailings-pond outlet and creating sediment ponds to draw material out of Hazeltine Creek — is ongoing and promises to be a “long job.”

A proposal to temporarily run the mill at half rate (using a pit to dump tailings) will likely be submitted to the government in the new year after results of the geotechnical inquiry are known.

Holmes is not against Imperial Metals’ plan to ask the government for approval to resume operations — but only after the cleanup.

“That’s where the priority has to be,” he said.

Skeed and Sharon Borkowski

The guest ledger at the Northern Lights Lodge on Quesnel Lake is filled with blank pages.

At the time of the spill, owners Skeed and Sharon Borkowski had 23 visitors. Three days later, their fly-fishing resort was empty.

So far, bookings for next season are “zero,” said Skeed. “Usually we have 30 people scheduled by now.” The couple’s plans to sell their resort and retire are also on hold.

Quesnel Lake’s spoiled reputation has dried up the resort’s clientele — avid fishers who came from all over the world to fish its pristine waters. The lake is now an “ugly green,” said Skeed, “and getting greener all the time.”

Scientists say the cloudy colour is due to the debris and minerals washed into the lake during the breach. It is expected to eventually clear as the lake water mixes and the sediment settles.

“I don’t see how they can know that,” said Skeed. “But I would love it if they were right. If that clear water that we advertised would come back it would be a start ...

“When I get inquiries from people, what can I tell them? I can’t lie. Things are not OK here.”

Chief Michael Lebourdais

It could be a lean winter for some First Nations communities in the Mount Polley area.

After the tailings-pond spill, several bands decided not to fish in local rivers and lakes, according to Whispering Pines/Clinton Indian Band Chief Michael LeBourdais.

“That will have real adverse effects on those communities,” he said. “The fish would have been dried and used as food for the winter.”

While scientists found the fish safe for human consumption, several First Nations communities did not trust their decision and chose not to fish.

“Fish that swam through arsenic and heavy metals are not going to be good to eat. It’s just common sense,” said LeBourdais.

On behalf of six area bands, the chief is planning to go to court to ask the Ministry of Mines to suspend Imperial Metals’ mining permit. He’s waiting for the results of the independent investigations into the disaster before finalizing his strategy, but he said First Nations want better consultation and more say on energy and resource extraction projects before anything goes ahead.

“We’re still dismissed when it comes to the environment, but we’re not going to let that happen anymore,” he said.

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