Tailings Pond Breaches, Five Million Cubic Metres of Contaminated Water and Toxic Slurry Sent Into Lakes and Waterways
As far back as 2011, concerns were raised about the tailings pond at the Mount Polley Mine. Brian Olding and Associates, an environmental consulting firm, prepared a detailed report that was submitted to the provincial Ministry of the Environment.
“We looked at the pond and we thought there was monitoring required. We wanted an emergency contingency plan in place.”
Olding was hired jointly by the Williams Lake Indian Band, the Soda Creek Indian Band and mine owner Imperial Metals to conduct an independent review of the Mount Polley Mine 75 kilometres southeast of Quesnel and prepare a technical assessment report on the proposed discharge of water from a tailings pond.
At about 3:45 a.m. on Monday the very pond he reported on was breached, sending over five million cubic metres of contaminated water and toxic slurry into Hazeltine Creek, uprooting trees with its force, and making its way toward Quesnel Lake.
By late Monday on the advice of provincial authorities, the Cariboo Regional District had issued a complete ban on drinking, swimming and bathing in the waterways surrounding the mine and extended it to include Polley Lake and all the waterways near the Mount Polley Mine, including Quesnel Lake, Cariboo Creek, Hazeltine Creek and “the entire Quesnel and Cariboo Rivers systems right to the Fraser River.”
Residents have been told not to allow pets or livestock to drink the water.
Chief Anne Louie of the Williams Lake Indian band said this is a “massive environmental disaster.” Louie, who was in meetings all day dealing with the crisis said “We held discussions with the mine staff related to the potential of this situation occurring. We have a report that we worked on a couple of years ago.” Louie said she will be having community meetings to address the issues in the coming days.
The ban will cover at least 300 people in the region, especially in the town of Likely, said Al Richmond, chairman of the Cariboo Regional District. The ban will stay in place until water samples have been analyzed.
“It’s an emergency situation. We haven’t yet declared a state of emergency, but the province and Interior health authorities and emergency services are working together to make an assessment,” said Richmond.
The escaping wall of water and slurry created a massive debris field that backed into Polley Lake and tumbled down Hazeltine Creek and into Quesnel Lake.
“What we know so far is that debris from the tailings pond backed up a little into Polley Lake, which absorbed some of the flow, but the majority of it went down into the Hazeltine Creek,” Richmond said.
“The creek (used to be) four feet wide. Now it’s 150 feet wide.
“At this time, the debris stopped where it intersects with the Quesnel River and there has been no significant flow into Quesnel Lake.”
Richmond said residents have expressed concerned about the debris taking out the Likely bridge, but that so far the bridge is holding.
In the meantime, Richmond said tanker trucks are being prepared to deliver water to local residents. But manpower is slight, and cellphone coverage in the area is patchy.
“There are only four people available from the volunteer fire department as first responders,” said Richmond.
The service road that connects Likely and the town of Horsefly was washed out by the spill, said Richmond, but the communities can be reached by other roads.
As of press time, Richmond said he didn’t know if the spill had been contained, or if it is still moving down the creek.
“The potential long-term impact to waterways, the watershed and roads is huge,” said Richmond.
Officials from Imperial Metals, which operates the Mount Polley Mine, did not return phone calls or emails from The Vancouver Sun on Monday, but according to a 2011 article in the Williams Lake Tribune, the capacity of the tailing pond has been a concern as far back as 2009.
At that time, the Mount Polley Mine applied for a permit from the Ministry of the Environment to discharge effluent into Hazeltine Creek.
The paper reported then how Mount Polley general manager Tim Fisch explained that the “closed system” of containing the toxic effluent in the pond was “difficult as the mine accumulates more water than it can use in a year due to its location in a ‘net positive’ precipitation zone … the amount of run-off requires dam raises and prohibits the formation of proper tailings beaches which could increase seepage and cause conditions that are ‘geotechnically unstable.’”
In 2011, Likely Matters reported the Williams Lake Indian Band opposed any permit to discharge effluent into Quesnel Lake due to environmental sensitivities.
“The tailings pond was filling out and they needed to get rid of the water,” said Olding of the dam, which he described as “earthen.” “The walls were getting too high and the water was getting too high.
“I’m not a structural engineer,” said Olding, “but it appeared from a common sense point of view that you could not continue to build that up higher and higher.”
One of the conditions of receiving the permit to discharge the effluent into the Hazeltine Creek was a review by the Environmental Minister of Olding’s report.
Olding said he last spoke with the minister a year ago about the matter. At that time, he said no permit had been issued for effluent discharge from the pond.
“We took 1,200 pages of data and (the proposal of effluent discharge) was problematic. You have to estimate what the impact of the contaminant is going to be on every organism down below. It gets complex very quickly.”
So complex that Olding said, “while the ministry was reviewing our report, the mine was reluctant to go through with the permit.”
Olding said Monday’s breech is a “very serious environmental situation. Hazeltine Creek runs into Quesnel Lake and that lake has, I believe, about a quarter of the Sockeye production in the province. The Quesnel River hits the Fraser River and the impact on the communities is going to be very high. No one knows what was in that tailings pond.”
Craig Ritson, owner of the Quesnel Lakeshore Room and Board, said concerns were raised about effluent at community meetings with the mine about a year ago when the company sought a gradual release of tailings down Hazeltine Creek.
“The concern at the time was exactly what we are facing now because so many people draw their water from that lake and nobody wanted to take a chance that it would affect the water quality here.
The Mount Polley Mine, operated by Imperial Metals, is an open-pit copper and gold mine with a four-km wide tailings pond built with an earthen dam. Tailings from operations like the Mount Polley Mine contain chemical contaminants and effluent.
According to their website, Imperial Metals employs about 1,000 people in B.C.
Quesnel Lake feeds into Quesnel River, which feeds into the Fraser River.
Phone calls to Imperial Metals went unreturned on Monday, and no one from the Ministry of the Environment was available for comment, although they confirmed the breach on Twitter.