Bearing Witness: Reflections on the Mt. Polley Mine Disaster Four Years Later

On September 30th, I joined a group traveling through the beautiful and rugged terrain of British Columbia (BC) to reach the site of the Mt. Polley Mine disaster.  The trip was organized by the Western Mining Action Network (WMAN) and MiningWatch Canada, following the annual WMAN Conference.  We took part in the nearly 17-hour trek to witness, first-hand, the devastation caused to the Quesnel Watershed and nearby communities. 

What we saw was heartbreaking, terrifying, and . . . hopeful. 

Four years ago, on August 4, 2014, the tailings dam at Imperial Metals’ Mt. Polley copper and gold mine split open, releasing approximately 25 million cubic meters of mine tailings and toxic water into Hazeltine Creek. From there, it flowed into Polley Lake and the pristine Quesnel Lake. Quesnel Lake serves as a cultural, spiritual, and economic cornerstone to surrounding communities.  It is critical to BC’s annual return of sockeye salmon and at more than 500 meters, Quesnel is one of the deepest fjord lakes in the world. This catastrophic dam failure affected drinking water and tourism throughout the region and at least 22 communities in the area have documented impacts to their health, food security, and culture. 

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On this particular day, our caravan of 20 or so vehicles climbed up twisty mountain passes, crossed through pasture land, and bobbed along dirt roads that seemed as though they would never end. Our first stop brought us to the Quesnel River Research Centre (QRRC), a field-based research facility operated by the University of Northern British Columbia (UNBC) close to the rupture site.  There, we heard from a variety of faculty and students on the research they’ve done since the Mt. Polley breach. They spoke of the enormous amount of toxic sediment at the bottom of Quesnel Lake (containing arsenic, cadmium, mercury, and selenium), which has raised the level and temperature of the lake, increased turbidity in the water column, and elevated copper concentrations above safe levels for aquatic life. We also learned about QRRC’s ongoing efforts to monitor the impacts of the spill and other collaborative projects. 

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Overflowing with technical information, coffee, and snacks, we returned to our caravan and continued on to our next destination – ground zero – the place where Hazeltine Creek, once narrow enough to leap across, was blown out to 100 meters wide near its entrance into Quesnel Lake. 

Mt_Polley_Before_and_After.jpgThe signs of impact were immediately visible. Lingering dead trees covered the sides of the banks like corpses and little vegetation had taken root in the extensive restoration efforts made by Imperial Metals.  While the visual was gut-wrenching, what struck me most was the silence. The absence of bird songs and any other sounds of life one would expect at the bank of a creek or the edge of a forest was tangible. The empty void that stretched across the bleak landscape before us carried only the voices of our group and an occasional moving vehicle. 

Mt_Polley_Ground_Zero.jpgIt was against this backdrop that we heard from a number of people who have been impacted by the disaster. Bev Sellars and Nuskmata Mack of First Nations Women Advocating for Responsible Mining (FNWARM), Christine McLean and Doug Watt of Concerned Citizens of Quesnel Lake, Tara Scurr of Amnesty International Canada, Doug Gook of the Forest People Alliance, and Ugo Lapointe of MiningWatch Canada all shared their experiences of the disaster and ongoing efforts to hold the responsible parties accountable. We heard about the immense importance of the river and lake for the Secwepemc and surrounding Indigenous peoples, as well as the nearby community of Likely. Everyone who spoke was devastated, yet determined to carry on healing what was lost and demand more from the company that continues to operate, despite their massive failure. 

Imperial Metals has yet to be fined or penalized, in any way, for its role in the disaster. Last year, in a move that went against the wishes of surrounding communities, the corporation was granted permission from the government to dump mine wastewater directly into Quesnel Lake, since the spill had already “degraded” the waterbody. Those who have been shaken by the events of the past four years have stood up to the corporation and the provincial government. They reminded us that although this disaster started in 2014, it is far from over. The water continues to go untreated, and there are no barriers to prevent wildlife or cattle from accessing the toxic tailings that cover the area. Fish still come back to spawn in the contaminated waters, and the impacts to downstream communities remain unknown. The government continues to protect cooperate interests over human health and wellbeing. The cost and burden of cleanup has fallen to those most affected, with the fewest resources to respond. Yet, despite these mounting injustices, local water protectors and community actors have sparked enough momentum to catalyze human rights recommendations to the government of Canada by two separate United Nations bodies (the Working Group on Business and Human Rights and the Committee for the Elimination of Discrimination) and an ongoing criminal investigation. They continue the struggle courageously, gaining support from allies along the way. 

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Heavy with fresh insights and raw emotions, we returned to our vehicles and quietly wound our way back to our starting point under the cover of fog, rain, and darkness.  We stopped in Williams Lake for a warm meal and pulled into Kamloops close to midnight. I spent most of the approximately seven-hour journey staring into the misty night, reflecting on the day. 

The image of a pristine ecosystem lost and a people changed was seared into my mind. It flashed with the lights of passing vehicles, like a premonition of what could happen to any one of our mighty salmon rivers here in Southeast Alaska. 

This was not a natural disaster. It was entirely human-created. It resulted from oversight, negligence, a company not investing in the best technology because it would lower the profit margin, and a government lacking the political will to regulate a powerful industry.  This wasn’t the first preventable tailings dam disaster and it probably won’t be the last. The independent expert review panel that investigated the Mt. Polley tailings dam breach determined that at least two tailings storage facilities are likely to fail every ten years.  According to the World Information Service on Energy Uranium Project, there have already been four tailings dam failures this year alone

We currently have the knowledge and technology to improve existing and future dams. Mining companies and investors know the risks and choose to proceed anyway because the cost of incorporating the precautionary principle (in which no project should move forward without being able to demonstrate safe management of all risks) is too high for their shareholders. How many more catastrophic failures will there be before enough of us realize that we have to implement stronger regulations on this industry, design tailings structures to be safer no matter the cost, and change our collective demands for mined products? 

Those of us with retirement funds or stocks that invest in mining projects also share the blame. We enable the practices that make a disaster like this possible every day.  Unless we stop and push back, it will happen again, and next time, it could be here.  Ground zero could be on the Unuk, the Stikine, the Taku, or the Chilkat. It could be the final straw for our already struggling salmon, shellfish, and seaweed populations. It could threaten the livelihoods, cultural practices, and identities for all of us who call these places home, and in some cases, our very survival. 

But we are not doomed to repeat this mistake. Prevention is possible, change is within reach, and those best positioned to make it happen are the communities who rely most heavily on the irreplaceable areas at stake. We have the ability to push harder on Alaskan agencies to prioritize health and safety and to collect the data needed for science-based decisions. We have the choice to divest from mining companies, limit the demand for metal products, and apply enough pressure to the mining industry that it is forced to change. 

The challenges of creating change in a society dominated by extractive industries are enormous. But there are already extraordinary acts being taken to address these challenges by individuals and groups across the globe. Mining companies,  government agencies, and much of the mainstream media spend considerable resources telling us that our actions don’t matter.  The very fact that these entities are investing so heavily in this message, however, means that our actions do matter and more importantly, that we are the ones with whom the power to create change resides. 

How this story evolves depends on which extraordinary measures of courage we choose to employ as we collectively determine the future. 

 

Here are five things each of us can do right now:

  1. Learn more about the impacts of Mt. Polley Mine’s catastrophic failure:
  2. Tell this story:
    • Make sure everyone you know is aware of what happened at Mt. Polley, and how easily it could happen here, in Southeast Alaska, or anywhere with a tailings dam
  3. Champion the groups working on Mt. Polley recovery efforts and preventing other mining disasters:
  4. Divest from mining companies:
    • Ensure that your personal investments, from your retirement savings to your stocks and bonds, are free from investments in mining
  5. Advocate for stronger mining regulations here in Alaska:
    • Join our mailing list to learn of additional actions you can take

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