QUESNEL, B.C. – Concerns raised in a report three years before a massive tailings pond breached at the Mount Polley gold and copper mine in central British Columbia were “basically ignored,” said a First Nations leader whose territory has been soiled by the disaster.
Bev Sellers, chief of the Xatsull First Nation, also known as the Soda Creek Indian Band, said many members of her band were in tears when they learned of Monday’s release of a slurry of contaminated water and mine waste into several local waterways.
“Because they know the destruction that’s going to happen from this breach. It’s just a real sad day,” she said in an interview Tuesday.
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The breach of the earthen dam, at one end of the four-kilometre long pond, left a 45-metre wide long swath of muck the length of several football fields through a thick forested area near the open-pit mine southeast of Quesnel, B.C.
The release of 10 million cubic metres of water and 4.5 million cubic metres of silt into Polley Lake prompted drinking water warnings for Quesnel Lake, Polley Lake, Hazeltine Creek, Cariboo Creek and the Quesnel River up to its intersection with the Fraser River.
But Brian Kynoch, president of Imperial Metals Corp., told a crowd of about 200 people gathered in the Likely, B.C., community centre that the water from the tailings pond is almost drinking water quality.
“The solids at Mount Polley are relatively benign — low mercury, very low arsenic, low metal content,” he added.
He denied there was any indication that the dam would burst.
“I apologize for what happened. If you asked me two weeks ago if it could happen, I would have said it couldn’t.”
Sellers said warnings in a 2011 environmental consultant’s report about the pond, commissioned by her band, the Williams Lake First Nation and Imperial Metals, were not heeded by the company.
“He had concerns about the tailings pond but they were basically ignored,” she said.
The report, by Brian Olding, who operates Brian Olding and Associates Ltd., said the tailings pond was accumulating water so quickly that it would have needed to discharge about 1.4 million cubic metres of water a year to keep its levels stable.
“A sustainable means of discharging excess water is required because dam building cannot continue indefinitely,” the report said in June 2011.
The report also criticized the company for not having a contingency plan in case of a tailings pond failure.
It wasn’t clear Tuesday if such a plan had been developed between the report’s completion and the dam breach on Monday that left the area looking like a lunar landscape.
Olding said in an interview that no analysis of the dam’s structural integrity was done as part of the review.
“I requested a structural engineering company be involved, and that was nixed. They did not want to deal with that problem at that time.”
Gerald MacBurney, a foreman at the dam for seven years before he recently quit, claimed the dam was breached last May and that weakened the whole system.
“When you get a breach, there’s more than one spot it breached. It weakened the whole system,” he said in an interview.
“And that’s where it popped, right where it was breached. … I knew it was going to burst.”
An emotional Kynock flatly denied the claim.
“The dam has never failed before,” he told the crowd.
Sellers said the possible impact on fish and animals are her band’s main concerns.
“This is the prime time when the salmon are coming up the Fraser River,” she said.
“Mount Polley Mines think of how many millions they can make, that’s their economy. Our economy, the First Nations’ economy, swims by in the river. Our economy walks on the land.”
Deana St. Onge, a resident of Likely, B.C., downstream from the mine, gathered with other residents at the local store to watch the Quesnel River as a log jam created by the mud tsunami resulting from the breach made its way towards the community.
“I have bigger questions than the water. I’d like to know, if my husband loses his job, who’s feeding my kids now,” she said. “My property out here is worth zero. We have worked our whole lives to get here.”
“They have turned Likely into a ghost town. It’s a sad day,” she said.
There are 380 people employed at the mine and they’ve all been asked to stay home, said Kynock. He said most would probably be called back either for cleanup or to restart the operation.
The Cariboo Regional District issued a water ban advising people not to drink or bathe in the water, or allow pets or livestock to consume it.
Because the area around the mine site is so remote, search and rescue crews travelled along lake shores in the area looking for campers or those staying in cabins to warn them of the possible dangers.
B.C. Energy and Mines Minister Bill Bennett said government and company officials will get to the bottom of what happened and make sure it doesn’t happen again.
“We don’t know how bad (it is.) We don’t know the quality of the water that was in the tailings pond,” he said. “I am advised it was fairly high quality water and I hope that turns out to be the case.”
A summary of material dumped into the tailings pond last year was filed with Environment Canada. It said there was 326 tonnes of nickel, over 400,000 kilograms of arsenic, 177,000 kilograms of lead and 18,400 tonnes of copper and its compounds placed in the pond last year.
Imperial Metals shares plunged Tuesday. The stock (TSX:III) was down more than 40 per cent at the close on the Toronto Stock Exchange, trading at $9.98, down $6.82 from the Friday close.