MAC: Mines and Communities

Canada: Mt Polley toxic disaster has been allowed to continue for three years

Published by MAC on 2017-08-05
Source: Huffington Post, DeSmogCanada, Vancouver Sun (2017-08-04)

And it's mainly due to government regulatory failure

It's now three years - to the week - that several million cubic metres of toxic  tailings  burst out of a so-called "storage facility" at the Mt Polley mine in British Columbia (BC).

But, despite several investigations into the disaster, no clean-up has been effected, no-one has been held liable, and mining operations (albeit at half-capacity) have been allowed to resume. (For earlier article, see: Miningwatch Canada files charges over Mt Polley disaster).

An Independent Expert Panel on Mount Polley has concluded there will be two such failures every decade if  such ‘business as usual' is allowed to continue. However, this is a distinct under-estimate of the damage that could be caused, and the expenses of reclamation and rehabilitation, even  if they were financially met. To cite the Huffington Post:

"The true cost of mining is borne by the First Nations whose cultures have been shaped for millennia by the lands, waters and wildlife. No one understands better the need for a healthy environment".

3 Years After Mount Polley, It's Still Business As Usual For B.C. Mining

Many people are counting on the new government to take action to clean up B.C.'s mining industry.

Dan Lewis

Huffington Post

4 August 2017

It's been three years since the disaster at the Mount Polley Mine near Williams Lake changed everything for the T'exelc, Xat'sull and other First Nations in the region. When the earthen dam of Imperial Metals' tailings storage facility burst in the wee hours of August 4, 26-million cubic metres of toxic sludge and slurry spilled out and ran down into Quesnel Lake, home to one quarter of the Fraser River's sockeye population.

To this day people do not trust the water quality of the lake they used to drink from, and expensive water filters clog up within days.

It's stunning to think that three years later, those toxic tailings have not been cleaned up — there are still tons of solids lining Hazeltine Creek, and lying on the bottom of Quesnel Lake.

There have been several investigations and review panels, but to date no one has been held responsible. The B.C. Conservation Office just announced that their three-year investigation will not be completed by Friday's deadline, so no charges will be laid under provincial legislation.

Private prosecution was brought forward by MiningWatch Canada, but was quashed when the crown prosecutor argued for a stay of proceedings, and the judge refused to hear evidence that harm had been caused to fish habitat. The final hope for justice rests with the ongoing federal investigation.

The independent review panel which examined the aftermath of Mount Polley declared the disaster meant the end of "business as usual." Yet within months, Mount Polley was allowed to resume operations at half capacity — before the tailings dam was even repaired.

According to a January 2015 independent report examining the tailings storage facility breach, the cause of the breach was a layer of glacial mud underneath the dam, which was not detected by the engineers who designed it. The breached dam has been repaired, right on top of that mud layer, and the mine has now been allowed to resume full operations, despite the fact that the mud layer problem was never fixed.

One reason the dam failed was that Imperial Metals was unable to manage excess water inside the dam. Instead of a "beach" of solid tailings up against the inside of the dam, water pooled up there, which was a contributing factor in the breach. To solve Imperial's ongoing water management challenge, this spring the Liberal B.C. government quietly granted permission to discharge contaminated waste water directly into pristine Quesnel Lake. Clearly, no one really meant that bit about "the end of business as usual."

It is interesting to note that Murray Edwards is one of the major owners of Imperial Metals. On the eve of the 2013 B.C. election, Edwards organized a fundraiser in Calgary for the B.C. Liberals, raising $1 million. The Liberals went on to win an election which no one thought they could win. British Columbia is the only jurisdiction in Canada where political fundraisers can be held out-of-province.

Many people are counting on the new government to take action to clean up B.C.'s mining industry.

Mining produces both benefits and costs for the province. No doubt the well-paying jobs are important, especially in rural communities. But profits flow mainly to the one per cent, who as often as not move their money offshore rather than contribute their fair share to government coffers (Mr. Edwards recently moved to England — perhaps to avoid paying taxes in Canada.)

The rest of us are left with the cost of cleanup — $40 million and counting at Mount Polley. Currently British Columbia has the largest unsecured environmental liability for mine site clean-up costs in Canada, estimated in 2016 at $1.27 billion.

The true cost of mining is borne by the First Nations whose cultures have been shaped for millennia by the lands, waters and wildlife. No one understands better the need for a healthy environment.

Just this spring a call was made for a judicial inquiry into mining practices. The need for reform of mining regulations in British Columbia was highlighted in January when Bev Sellars, chair of First Nations Women Advocating Responsible Mining, was able to stake a mineral claim on former minister Bill Bennett's backyard by paying $25 and clicking a mouse.

Many people are counting on the new government to take action to clean up B.C.'s mining industry. With Imperial Metals considering two mines in the Clayoquot Sound UNESCO Biosphere Reserve despite opposition from Tla-o-qui-aht and Ahousaht First Nations, we'll be watching closely.

Dan Lewis is executive director of Clayoquot Action in Tofino, British Columbia.


Mount Polley dam failure: Why were there no charges under B.C. laws?

Vancouver Sun

3 August 2017

The disclosure Wednesday that there will be no charges laid under B.C.'s environmental laws for Imperial Metals' Mount Polley tailings dam failure in 2014 has environmentalists questioning whether the province''s laws are strong enough.

There remains the possibility of federal charges under the Fisheries Act, but the B.C. Conservation Officer Service has said a B.C.-federal investigation will not be complete by Friday - when the three-year time limit to lay charges under B.C.'s Environmental Management Act ends.

The B.C. conservation service-led "investigation" involving a dedicated team of officers and several federal investigators” started almost immediately after the Aug. 4, 2014, failure of the earth-and-rock dam at the gold-and-copper mine northeast of Williams Lake.

That failure spilled millions of cubic metres of effluent and finely ground rock containing potentially toxic metals called tailings. The release scoured a nine-kilometre creek, home to trout and spawning coho salmon, and dumped tailings into Quesnel Lake, the migration route for more than one million sockeye salmon.

Andrew Gage, a lawyer with West Coast Environmental Law, said the fact there will be no charges laid under B.C. laws for one of Canada's largest mining spills is remarkable and highlights a general trend, he believes, of decreased successful convictions of environmental violations.

Gage pointed to data West Coast Environmental Law has put together showing that since 1990 there has been a significant decline in the number of convictions under the province's pollution statutes.

A Ministry of Environment online database lists 47 court convictions under the Environmental Management Act since 2006, only one involving a mining company, the coal giant Teck Resources.

Teck had convictions in 2013 and 2016, the latest resulting in $3.4 million in fines related to releases of water with elevated levels of metals and chemicals.

"I hope the new NDP government will ask tough questions," said Gage, of the failure of the B.C.-led investigation to reach a conclusion by the three-year time limit.

Calvin Sandborn, legal director of the University of Victoria's Environmental Law Centre, said it is significant that one of the biggest global mining "disasters" has not resulted in charges in B.C.

He believes it underscores a benign neglect in regulation of mining, highlighted in a B.C. auditor general report last year that concluded compliance and enforcement in the mining sector are not adequate to protect the environment.

"Lack of enforcement, or lack of laws to enforce, shows the need for a royal commission of inquiry," said Sandborn, repeating a call made earlier for an inquiry into the regulation and oversight of mining in the province.

However, Robin Junger, a lawyer with McMillan LLP in Vancouver, said it is not uncommon for both provincial and federal agencies to investigate an incident and for one or the other not to lay charges.

Generally  - as he could not speak to the specifics of this case - " there could also be reason for not pursuing charges including a defence of due diligence", said Junger, a former deputy minister of mines in B.C., as well as a former head of the province's Environmental Assessment Office.

Ugo Lapointe, program co-ordinator for Mining Watch Canada, said the lack of charges under B.C. laws says to him that the province's laws are weak.

"It needs to be fixed and fixed quickly," he said.

Lapointe said Mining Watch believes B.C. laws were violated as a result of the dam failure, including potentially under the Environmental Management Act, Mining Act and Water Sustainability Act.

He said Mining Watch has its legal team examining if it's possible to lay private charges before the three-year time limit ends on Friday.


Canada’s Environmental Fines are Tiny Compared to the U.S.

By Carol Linnitt

DeSmogCanada

3 August 2017

This week marks the three-year anniversary of the Mount Polley mine disaster, which sent 24 million cubic metres of mining waste into Quesnel Lake, making it one of the worst environmental disasters in Canadian history.

It’ll be a stinging reminder of the tailings pond collapse for local residents, especially considering no charges have been laid against Imperial Metals, owner and operator of Mount Polley.

Come August 5 it will be too late for B.C. to lay charges, given a three-year statute of limitations — however federal charges can be laid for another two years.

But here’s the thing: under the federal Fisheries Act, Mount Polley can receive a maximum of $12 million in fines: $6 million for causing harm to fish and fish habitat and $6 million for dumping deleterious substances without a permit into fish bearing waters.

Compare that with the estimated $40 million in Mount Polley cleanup costs borne by B.C. taxpayers. And take into account that in 2016, Imperial Metals generated over $428 million in revenue and owns more than $1.5 billion in assets, according to the company’s annual report.

“Fines and sanctions are pitiful for environmental damages in Canada, and it’s part of the systemic and structural problem for ensuring greater environmental protection,” Ugo Lapointe, Canadian coordinator for MiningWatch, told DeSmog Canada.

“There’s little incentive for corporations to comply with environmental laws, or invest in more protective measures, if the consequences for failing to comply are cheaper.”

For examples of more meaningful environmental penalties, Canadians need look no further than the U.S.

In 2016 a Florida fertilizer manufacturer’s tailings pond drained millions of litres of wastewater into an underlying aquifer when a giant sinkhole appeared under the impoundment, tearing through the pond’s liner.

The company was fined $2 billion USD for improper waste and chemical management (that’s 167 times the maximum fine Mount Polley could face under the Fisheries Act).

In 2014, Alpha Natural Resources was ordered to pay $27.5 million USD for thousands of environmental violations at the company’s 79 coal mines and 25 processing plants across the States. The company was also ordered by the EPA to pay $200 million in upgrades to its facilities to avoid future infractions.

Meantime back in Canada, the largest fine in Canadian history for an environmental infraction was for $7.5 million.

That penalty was handed out in 2014 to owners of the Bloom Lake mine in Quebec who pled guilty to 45 separate charges under the Fisheries Act.

The second largest fine in Canada, at $4.4 million, was just handed out to Prairie Mines in Alberta for the release of 67 million cubic metres of tailings waste into two creeks that feed into the Athabasca River. That spill was nearly 40,000 times smaller than the Mount Polley disaster. Of that total, $3.5 million was paid in federal penalties, with the additional $900,000 paid in provincial fines.

The third largest fine of $3.4 million was handed out to Teck Metals for three offences under the Fisheries Act after the company released effluent into B.C.’s Columbia River.

Mount Polley Disaster Didn’t Change the Way Mining is Done in B.C.

The absence of provincial fines or charges in the wake of the Mount Polley mine spill worries Nikki Skuce, director of Northern Confluence, an initiative that aims to improve land-use decisions in B.C. watersheds.

“It just seems incredible for what is called the largest environmental disaster in B.C.’s history, there are no fines, no charges, no penalties,” Skuce told DeSmog Canada.

“Our laws are that weak.”

Further increasing concern is the fact best practices, including recommendations made by the Independent Expert Panel on Mount Polley, haven’t consistently been applied in the approval of new mines along the B.C./Alaska border.

Ten new mines are approved or under construction along the B.C.-Alberta border, including Imperial Metals’ Red Chris mine which was approved with a wet tailings pond impoundment similar in design to Mount Polley.

After the Mount Polley tailings spill, experts recommended the use of safer, but more costly, dry stack tailings.

“The Independent Expert Panel on Mount Polley concluded that we can expect two failures every decade if ‘business as usual continues,’ ” Skuce said, adding multiple wet tailings impoundments have been approved at mines of much greater scale than Mount Polley.

“With no full bonding requirements and potential fines low under B.C. and federal laws, companies have few[er] incentives to invest in techniques like dry stacking that lower reclamation costs and reduce risk of spills,” Skuce said.

“Why use best practices and best available technology if you may never be held accountable if disaster strikes?”

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