August 4th marks the 3-year anniversary of the Mt Polley Mine Disaster, the worst environmental mining disaster in B.C.’s history. That day, a massive earthen tailings dam broke from its foundations, releasing millions of liters of toxic mine tailings into nearby Quesnel Lake, a major tributary of the Frasier River, one of Canada’s most important salmon-producing rivers. The dam was less than 20 years old.
The Quesnel Lake watershed has long provided the communities of the Xat’sull First Nation and town of Likely with clean water and fish. The waters of the lake, the deepest fjord lake in North America, were pristine and off limits to dumping. Now, three years later, the First Nations community remains unable to eat the lake’s fish that has sustained them for thousands of years. There have also been significant losses to the once flourishing tourism industry which has seen no compensation. Because Quesnel Lake is no longer pristine, BC now allows mine water to be dumped there.
Today is also the deadline to bring charges in this case. As of now, none will be forthcoming though, as reported in the Vancouver Sun, federal charges may still be possible. The B.C. Conservation Office Service will be handing over their ongoing investigation into the failure to the federal departments of Environment and Fisheries and Oceans Canada which are conducting their own investigation.
After the disaster, an independent review panel was appointed by the B.C. government to discover the cause of the failure and recommend steps to take to avoid similar events in the future. They found that the failure was due to a section of the dam which was constructed on glacial clay (prevalent throughout SE Alaska and Western B.C.) causing instability as the tailings dam grew, a design flaw not caught during the permitting process. The panel’s recommendations, that mines use best available technology and prioritize safety over profit, have been routinely ignored. In fact, the same type of tailings facility was approved for the Red Chris Mine on the Stikine River, also owned by Imperial Metals. As of this date, not a single proposed BC mine has changed its plan in order to conform with the panel’s recommendations.
In B.C. there are at least 10 proposed new mines on transboundary rivers like the Stikine, one of Southeast Alaska’s most productive salmon-producing rivers. Each mine promises safety and protection from potential disaster, but downstream communities continue to be skeptical. The same promises were made at Mt Polley where the dam was designed to hold in perpetuity but instead failed after less than 20 years.
All of these mines are in a rainforest that is seismically active, meaning that they face numerous complicating factors that are not considerations for mining projects in other parts of the world. These mines are a bad bet for Southeast Alaska and the B.C. Government and Canadian mining companies are gambling with our clean water. A failure for any of these dams would be devastating for the economy and communities of Southeast Alaska who receive no benefits from the mines, only the risk.
This risk is unacceptable. B.C. must learn from these mistakes and follow the recommendations from the panel, creating and enforcing policies that prioritize the long-term safety and health of our communities over the short-term financial gains of a few.