Opinion

Many questions about Mount Polley tailings pond disaster

Just over a week ago, a dam containing a tailings pond at the Mount Polley mine near Likely collapsed. It sent water and mine waste down the hillside and into nearby Polley and Quesnel Lakes.

The worst fears have not yet been realized. Water sampling in Quesnel Lake shows that the water remains quite pure, and within both Canadian and B.C. drinking water standards.

However, there are many very troubling issues that arise from this incident.

One is why earlier concerns about the amount of water contained in this pond were not addressed more quickly. The mine had asked for some changes to its permits earlier this year, but had not received permission yet. An independent study conducted several years ago suggested that there could be a problem, due to the amount of water going into the pond.

Another is how often mines of this nature are inspected. There were no initial answers to that question, but on Friday a detailed press release from the ministry (it is well worth a thorough look, see http://www.newsroom.gov.bc.ca/2014/08/friday-aug-8---mount-polley-tailings-pond-situation-update.html ) said that there had been 16 geotechnical inspections of the dam since the mine first received an operating permit in 1995. The most recent inspection was conducted in September, 2013.

If there is any likelihood that these dams could fail, and this incident proves that they can, inspections need to be conducted each year during or immediately after the spring high water season. An inspection in September, after several months of dry weather, is almost certain to give the mine operator a break.

One of the biggest concerns is how this release of minerals and waste water will affect a large run of sockeye salmon. I was not aware that the Quesnel Lake system was home to so many returning sockeye salmon. They are expected to be in the Quesnel River and the lake, and in upstream spawning channels, within the next few weeks.

It is so sad that this event took place just as a very large run of sockeye salmon is returning from the ocean. After years of small runs, the 2014 run has been looked forward to with anticipation by most B.C. residents, particularly those who fish for food, for a living and for sport.

Another troubling issue is the fact that Imperial Metals, the operator of the mine, has been a large donor to the BC Liberals. In addition, Murray Edwards, a large shareholder in the company, was personally involved in raising funds in Calgary for Premier Christy Clark’s re-election campaign.

There is nothing wrong with individuals, companies or unions donating to election campaigns. But when some of their activities come up against government regulators, it is absolutely essential that there be an arm’s length investigation which cannot be influenced by the politicians in power.

Thus far, it is unclear just how this incident is being investigated. The government say conservation officers will investigate. They are not well-equipped for an investigation of this type. More announcements are expected this week.

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