MAC: Mines and Communities

Mining Waste from Canada’s Mount Polley Mine Spill Still Lingers

Published by MAC on 2015-08-10
Source: Vice Magazine (2015-08-06)

It's been a year since Canada's environment - not to mention local people and salmon - suffered one of the largest mine tailings catastrophes anywhere on earth.

That should surely have been time enough to secure a thorough clean-up of the wastes, and significant advances towards minesite rehabilitation.

Last month, the mine was given provincial government permission to partially re-open - a decision that MiningWatch Canada called "premature as long as the operator, Imperial Metals, is still under two investigations for its failure to prevent the biggest catastrophic mining spill in Canadian history".

Now, further research has shown that the "spill" was far greater than estimated earlier, while efforts to address it have, in many respects, been merely cosmetic.

 
 

A ‘Massive Deposit’ of Mining Waste From BC’s Mount Polley Mine Spill Is Still Lingering

By Carol Linnitt

Vice Magazine

6 August 2015

On August 4, 2014 an estimated 24 million cubic metres of mining waste and water spilled from the Mount Polley mine tailings pond and flowed down Hazeltine Creek and into Quesnel Lake, a source of drinking water for the town of Likely, BC, and home to an estimated quarter of the province's sockeye salmon.

The volume of contaminated waste escaping the tailings pond was so enormous it took 12 hours to pour into the depths of Quesnel Lake, one of the deepest fjord lakes in the world. The sheer violence of the spill scoured the banks of the Hazeltine of trees which themselves were stripped of their bark and branches. The base of the Hazeltine, where it meets Quesnel Lake, had been transformed from a six foot-wide creek bed to a 150 metre-wide fan of mud and limbless timber.

It was and remains the worst environmental mining disaster in Canadian history.

Although the Mount Polley Mining Corporation, owned by Imperial Metals, has since spent an estimated $67 million on cleanup efforts to remediate Hazeltine Creek, none of the material — containing mercury, copper, arsenic, selenium, and other heavy metals — that made its way into Quesnel Lake has since been recovered.

According to Sam Albers, manager of the Max Blouw Quesnel River Research Centre in Likely, this "massive deposit" of mining waste lurking on the bottom of the lake has him worried.

Albers recently co-published a paper in Geophysical Research Letters that estimated the waste deposit is over 600 metres long, one to three metres deep and a kilometre wide. That's roughly the size of six Manhattan-style city blocks or the equivalent of about 23 Olympic sized swimming pools.

Yet Albers said that estimate was based on information his team initially received from the mine's consultants in meetings soon after the spill took place. It wasn't until the province released the Post-Event Environmental Impact Assessment Report last month that Albers realized the deposit was substantially bigger.

"It's a 2,000 page report," he said, "so it's death by overload of information. But there's one section by Tetra Tech EBA and the information about the extent of this deposit is in there and it's staggering."

"The crew that went out used sonar and the differential way sound waves move through water as opposed to sediment," Albers said. "They determined that it's actually much, much bigger. Which is kind of crazy."

Albers said according to the new data the waste pile is as deep as 10 metres in some places "and much bigger than 600 metres long."

"That was staggering when I first saw it," he said. "It's even worse than we thought."

Albers said he and his team are using probes to monitor the sediment in the water and will study impacts to the food web and ecosystem over the long-term.

He added Quesnel Lake has an impressive sockeye salmon population, hosting as much as 60 percent of the province's sockeye run during peak years. "We had a million fish come back this most recent year," he said, adding, "the big concern is that copper and salmon really don't mix all that well."

"Specifically, dissolved copper and salmon don't mix well. It can get into their olfactory system—so the fish equivalent of a nose—and really mess with their ability to utilize their ecosystem properly."

Albers said studying the levels of dissolved copper in Quesnel Lake over the long-term will be critical to understanding the impact of the spill on sockeye.

Hitting the one year anniversary of the spill is important for scientists collecting basic data, Albers explained, because it allows for "more comparing apples to apples."

"We can now compare August 6 data from this year to August 6 data from last year. That will help us develop that longer-term time series which is critical to being able to comment on the impacts."

Last week BC's Ministry of Environment announced "significant progress" has been made in the last year to mitigate and remediate the impacts of the spill. In a press release the province lists the containment of tailings, water treatment and the protection of fish as "complete or suitably initiated."

Environment Minister Mark Polak said although "full environmental remediation will take years" the mine's work has been "truly impressive."

But fisheries biologist and Likely resident Richard Holmes said he finds that self-congratulatory attitude from the mine and the government "insulting."

"They've certainly accomplished some things. Hazeltine Creek has been somewhat cleaned up ," he said, adding flatly: "it looks like a pretty ditch now."

"But unfortunately it's going to be used as a pretty ditch for a couple of years to transport waste water and it's not going to be used for fish habitat for at least two years."

"They may be happy, but for people who live here it's not what we envisioned at all," he said.

Holmes said he feels the community deserves better, from both the mine and the government.

"We have to keep stressing to the company and the government that they can't shortcut this remediation. Unfortunately the mining company has a mindset of bottom line: what can we do as fast as we can for the least amount of money . That has to stop."

"The world is watching us," Holmes said.

Kanahus Manuel, an Indigenous activist and member of the Secwepemc First Nation, said she participated in four different site visits over the last year and that "no significant type of cleanup has taken place at any of the sites."

"I've witnessed with my own eyes that there is no significant clean up ," she said. "There is still crusted tailings on what used to be the forest floor. They've made a man-made channel on what used to be the Hazeltine Creek but those sediment ponds are not working, it's still spewing toxic tailings into Quesnel Lake. It's very distressing to us salmon people."

She added it was "very irresponsible" for the province to give permission to the mine to partially restart operations last month. "Mount Polley is still under investigation and they haven't cleaned up this disaster."

"They're getting away with it."

VICE Canada reached out to Lyn Anglin, Imperial Metals' Chief Scientific Officer, for comment but did not hear back by time of publication.

Local residents Gary and Peggy Zorn who run an eco-tourism and grizzly-watching business in Likely said they feel Mount Polley spill cleanup has been mostly superficial.

"They've taken care of the aesthetics," she said. "Things look okay but they haven't dealt with the environmental mess."

"They talk about the clean up that has been done. They've cleaned up the surface but there's a lot of other stuff that hasn't been done. They'll never get [the mine waste] out of the lake so you can hardly call that a cleanup."

Gary added, "all we're saying is, 'Hey, you guys created the mess. At least make an effort to straighten it out and not just what looks nice along the road.'"

Another couple, Greg and Ingrid Ritson who live on water from Quesnel River that drains directly from the lake, said they were relying on bottled water the mine was providing to them and other families in the area. But the mine cancelled that water delivery program in May.

"I think water's one of the biggest issues we've got to deal with," Greg Ritson said.

Ritson said he and his wife shower in water they draw from the lake and the effects of doing so worry him.

"You've got to watch," he said. "You will find if you shower every day, you will get dry spots, like I've never had in my life."

"But there's lots of people here that have horrendous problems: breaking out in skin rashes and stuff that they've never, ever had. And nobody can tell you why."

Ritson said the initial water bans warned people not to drink or bathe in the water and to keep their pets away. Now he said the community has been told the water is safe to bathe in.

"Where did they come up with that?"

"If you ask what are the long-term effects of the chemicals in the water, they'll say 'Oh they're fine,'" he said. "But if they're fine why couldn't we drink them? There seems to be an imbalance there."


B.C. rejects environmentalists’ bid to sit on mining regulation panel

Committee will study how to implement recommendations from study of Mount Polley dam failure

By Gordon Hoekstra

Vancouver

14 August 2015

The B.C. government has rejected a request by environmental groups to sit on a committee conducting a mining regulation review sparked by Imperial Metals’ Mount Polley tailings dam failure last year.

In a letter on Tuesday, Energy and Mines Minister Bill Bennett said the six groups — which include the human-rights group Amnesty International — can participate by making a written submission to the review committee.

The minister did not directly address the groups’ request to be part of the committee, which is headed by B.C.’s chief mines inspector Al Hoffman and includes representatives from industry, First Nations and unions.

In a letter to Bennett on Monday, the United Steelworkers had supported the groups’ request for a seat at the committee table.

The other groups involved are Mining Watch Canada, the Sierra Club of B.C., the Fair Mining Coalition, West Coast Environmental Law and Northern Confluence.

“I think the more robust the process, the better outcome you are going to have,” said Nikki Skuce, with the Smithers-based Northern Confluence, which focuses on land-use decisions in northern B.C., including mining development. “A lot of non-profits have a lot of knowledge of mining laws and regulations and an interest in improving them.”

In a letter to Bennett on July 28, the groups noted that other mining jurisdictions in Canada include non-governmental groups in providing advice and policy recommendations.

That’s the case for the Quebec mining minister’s consulting standing committee and the Ontario’s minister’s mining act advisory committee.

The groups also noted that in May, non-government groups were made part of British Columbia’s Climate Leadership Team, along with MLAs, academics, mayors, industry and First Nations. That group is meant to provide the government with advice and recommendations for a new provincial climate plan.

Bennett has said the mining code review is meant to determine how to best implement an expert panel’s recommendations from their investigation of the Mount Polley dam failure.

The recommendations delivered last January include creating a more prescriptive tailings dam design and construction guidelines that go beyond the Canadian Dam Safety guidelines referenced in the existing B.C. laws.

In a written statement, Ministry of Energy and Mines spokesman David Haslam said they had opened the review more than in the past, for the first time including First Nations representatives on the committee and opening the review to public comment.

“We are confident the committee members will offer an excellent perspective and will advise how best to address the expert panel recommendations and any health and safety issues,” Haslam said Wednesday.

Mining Watch Canada co-ordinator Ugo Lapointe said the group already sits on four similar federal committees, including one on abandoned mines and another on metal mine effluent regulations.

“I think there is a misunderstanding on the part of some government officials and some industry folks. I think they are overly scared of what it might mean to open the books or open the table to (non-governmental organizations),” Lapointe said.

It seems to be working in other jurisdictions, noted Lapointe, who sits on the Quebec government mining committee.

“Of course there is debate, of course there are clashes, but it’s just part of democracy. And at the end of the day, it’s the minister who decides what to do with what he is hearing,” he said.


 

Gold mine spill in Canada shines light on practice of avoiding environmental assessment

Business in Vancouver

11 August 2015

A small gold mine on an uninhabited island on B.C.’s north coast has some big problems.

Just seven months after its Tel mine was declared to be in commercial production, Banks Island Gold Ltd. has been forced to shut it down, putting 100 people out of work and leaving investors with shares that fell more than 70% in value over the course of one week.

There is some question whether the mine can reopen, as the company had been struggling with a $14 million deficit before the mine was shut down and says it will need to seek “immediate financing” in order to restart.

The mine was ordered shut down for unauthorized discharges of effluent from its mine site that resulted from flooding. An inspection by the Ministry of Energy and Mines also found a number of permit violations, including the processing of ore from an unpermitted mine site.

The company is facing potential legal action from the Gitxaala Nation, which says the Banks Island Gold mine is an example of project splitting and scoping – a tactic used to get industrial projects approved without having to go through a rigorous Environmental Assessment Office (EAO) review.

“They basically made this mining outfit just big enough so that it didn’t require a full [environmental assessment],” Gitxaala Chief Clarence Innis told Business in Vancouver.

“In my experience, in this industry, this is a classic move,” said James Witzke, environmental assessment manager for the Gitxaala Nation. “You call it project splitting.”

Banks Island Gold has one operating mine on Banks Island – the Tel mine – and three other potential mine sites: the Bob, Kim and Discovery, where it has been conducting bulk sampling (the mining of ore to test for mineralization).

Unlike most mines in B.C., the company does not store mine waste in a tailings pond. It puts the processed ore back underground, although Al Hoffman, chief inspector of mines, said it wasn’t being done properly.

The company was found to be trucking tailings that were supposed to go underground at the Tel mine and trucking it to the Bob site, where it was dumped into a “glory hole” – a depression created when the workings from an old underground mine break through the surface.

Heavy rain and a failed sump pump resulted in flooding that spilled a “relatively small” amount of water and tailings into local waterways on June 25.

“Again, this was contrary to their permit,” Hoffman said.

Since the mine site is near fish-bearing streams flowing to tidewater, the Gitxaala are worried about heavy-metal contamination because they harvest seaweed and shellfish on Banks Island.

It was only when a whistleblower who works at the mine informed government officals about the spill that a site inspection occurred and a number of permit violations discovered.

On July 9, provincial authorities conducted a site visit, issued a pollution abatement order and ordered a cleanup.

On July 15, the Energy and Mines Ministry ordered the operations shut down. The company did not issue a press release about the shutdown order until July 24. Moreover, it appears not to have complied with it.

In a subsequent press release on July 28, the company said it was continuing to process ore. On August 4, it put out another press release stating that, on July 31, the operation had been shut down – two weeks after the shutdown order was made.

Environmental group Pacific Wild took aerial photos with a drone of the tailings pond breach.

The company also disputed media claims about a potentially toxic spill, stating that water sampling showed no adverse effect on fish.

“Toxicity testing of the water spilled at Bob indicated 100% survival of rainbow trout and Daphnia magna,” the company stated in its press release.

The Gitxaala are skeptical, however, and are hiring their own environmental consulting firm to conduct an independent review. Witzke said he has questions about where and when the sampling was done.

“Given their track record and what we’ve seen in the past, we have absolutely zero confidence in how they’ve collected this sample,” he said.

Banks Island CEO Benjamin Mossman did not return calls to BIV.

Hoffman confirmed that the company had been processing ore from mine sites that are not permitted.

Only the Tel is a permitted mine, so the company is not supposed to be processing ore from bulk sampling, he said.

“They were producing from the Discovery mine and trucking it to the Tel mine, where the processing plant is,” Hoffman said. “They were only permitted to process Tel ore, so they were out of compliance with their permit.

“This level of confusion and non-compliance is very unusual,” Hoffman added.

According to Energy and Mines, the company will need to submit a new plan to amend its Mines Act permit to explain how they plan to manage its tailings.

Asked whether he thinks the problem with Banks Island was a lack of oversight on the government’s part or simply a company not following the rules that are in place, Witzke said it is a bit of both.

Had the mine been subject to a full environmental assessment (EA) process, some of the problems might have been avoided, he said.

“We said right from the get-go this needs to have a more [thorough] environmental assessment completed on it,” Witzke said.

Ian McAllister, who shot surveillance video and photos of the Banks Island mine for his Pacific Wild environmental organization, agrees the project should have had a full environmental review.

“I can only imagine that the fisheries value alone would have ensured that that mine and the tailings disposal that they have put together there would never have been allowed,” he said.
Under the wire

The Banks Island mining project appears to have just barely squeaked under the wire without tripping a full assessment.

For a mineral mine, a full EA is triggered if the mine would produce 75,000 tonnes or more of ore per year. That’s how much the company said the mine would produce, once fully developed, according to a company technical report.

But when it made its application to government agencies, it based its mining plan on an annual production of 73,000 tonnes per year – just 2,000 tonnes short of the EA trigger.

The project was approved through a project-specific mine review committee, which is far less rigid than a full EA process.

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