Mount Polley Tailings Spill
A Disaster Close to Home
I was glad to be working at the WaterWealth office when I first heard the news of the Mount Polley tailings disaster. My dad would approve of my being at work on a holiday, and I felt somewhat better to be working for water rather than relaxing somewhere when I heard the news. It was strange to see that news with the knowledge of the personal connection Dad and I shared to what may prove to be the worst industrial disaster in BC history. A disaster involving a mine, that mine, and water.
Dad grew up on a farm in Petersfield Manitoba during the Great Depression and the Second World War. The farm gave him the toughness to work in any conditions and a slightly crooked forearm from being thrown from a Clydesdale. He didn’t much like farming.
His passion from a very early age was rocks and at the first opportunity he went to work in a mine, overstating his age to get a job underground at Central Patricia Gold Mines from 1947 to 1949.
Dad worked at several mines through the 1950s. Mom joined him, tolerating mining camp life and even living in tents a couple of Manitoba winters.
In 1960 they moved to BC where Dad had been offered a job prospecting, and in 1964 Dad and his friend Sam McBeath found the copper-gold deposit at Mount Polley.
Dad and I shared a love of wild places and the creatures who inhabit them. We approached that love from quite different perspectives though. Dad came from a generation that I don’t think could accept that human activity could have global impacts. To him the wilderness was vast. He knew that first hand, having travelled a lot of it by canoe, raft, dog sled and snowshoe. A mine site was a tiny spot on a huge map to his eye. He never could quite accept anthropogenic climate change, though he wavered when he saw figures on the total carbon put into the atmosphere by human activities in a year.
I grew up under the shadow of the cold war. For my generation there was no question that human activities could have global impacts. We knew nuclear war could happen any time and were familiar with ideas like how radioactive fallout could be spread by prevailing winds, the threat of nuclear winter, the reality of ozone depletion and acid rain.
“If you go into the bush with an attitude the bears will get you."
From our different perspectives Dad and I worked together through the summers of my teen years, prospecting in the Yukon. Dad taught me how to go into the bush, “If you go into the bush with an attitude the bears will get you. If you go into the bush with respect you’ll be ok.”, he'd say. He was fascinated with the rocks. I was fascinated with the wildlife. Grateful for opportunities to watch the squirrels play, to look into the eyes of marmot, porcupine and caribou, to hear the howls of wolves against the sunset.
Dad passed away of cancer in September 2008, at home with his kids at his side. The Mount Polley find was important to him. So important that the family chose Mount Polley as the site for his ashes to be placed. It would be six years before the family got together again to carry out his wishes.
By the time dad was diagnosed with cancer I was a self-employed electrician. Good work, but my heart was more concerned with other things. Climate change weighed heavily on my mind. Job site conversations tended toward issues; energy policy, climate impacts, species diversity and loss, ocean acidification, urban design, transportation infrastructure. I wrote letters to the editor and to politicians. Climate conferences came and went. Canada removed itself from the Kyoto Protocol and carbon emissions continued to rise. I began casting about for a way to do more.
Our Wealth is in Our Water - Let's Protect It!
At the beginning of 2013 the WaterWealth Project was forming and was looking for community organizers. I knew little about water issues and less about community organizing, but they were offering a five day orientation training. An opportunity to learn! I applied, then talked my way out of the job saying in the interview that I would do my best if they were stuck but I’m an electrician, not a community organizer, and I really hoped they would find people better qualified than I. They did.
As luck would have it though, they offered the training to a couple of us as volunteers. The reward I was after without the job I was unsure of! That initial training session was inspiring. The people involved were fascinating and concepts like theory of change and collaborative approaches to localizing water governance very new to a guy with a background in the resource industry and construction. WaterWealth’s program ran alongside a three day event that brought people from all over the province who were involved in water issues in one capacity or another. By the time it was done I was pretty much hooked.
Returning to Chilliwack, I volunteered at WaterWealth until the Director, Sheila Muxlow, decided they had to pay me something. Working with a start-up community organization does not replace the income or security of construction work, but getting paid something was excuse enough to let me stay. And stay I did, taking every opportunity to learn more about water issues and history and governance, doggedly working for a vision through which we might better look after those things we value and improve rather than diminish the waters and the communities we pass on to our children and their children. The issues around water are many, varied and complex.
With the help of WaterWealth supporters we are playing a role in modernization of BC water law, tackling regional and local planning issues, responding to specific incidents and threats and all the while experimenting with and developing methods and technologies of community engagement to bring more people and perspectives to conversations about long-term protection of the wealth that is in our shared home waters.
Diving in the deep end
It is challenging and interesting work, and it feels like the right work. As 2013 ticked over into 2014 I really dove in, letting my electrical business go. In June of 2014 Sheila went on maternity leave with her first baby and I stepped, for the interim, into her role at WaterWealth.
So it was that the son of one of the prospectors who found the mineral deposit at Mount Polley came to be watching online news of the tailings dam breach as Interim Director of an organization devoted to protection of freshwater. The scene was made all the more surreal by the fact that we had finally placed Dad’s ashes on that site only a week before.
It was a warm sunny day as we stood on Mount Polley, toasting Dad with scotch. We had spent the previous day driving up from the Lower Mainland and enjoying what the area had to offer. There were fish and people fishing where Quesnel Lake spilled into Quesnel River. A family of ducks strolled on the lake shore, babies almost as big as mom but still following her around. A family of foxes looked at us with curiosity near the confluence of the Quesnel and Cariboo rivers. A bear ran away into the bush. Looking at that tailings ‘pond’ in the distance, I wondered at it’s size. Five kilometers to a side we had been told, though news reports now say four. All that toxic water and muck restrained by only an earthen dam. It made me uncomfortable to look at. In hindsight one can’t help but wonder about that feeling.
Dad and I would have somewhat different perspectives on the disaster that followed. He would curse those responsible for their failure; the management, the engineers, the government regulators. My thoughts go first to the loss of life, to the fish I watched from the Likely Bridge, to the salmon runs coming up the rivers as billions of litres of contaminated water are coming down, and to the bioaccumulation of contaminants present in mine tailings. Where our thoughts would converge is that this cannot be allowed to happen.
And yet it is allowed, over and over again. The 2006 Big Bar salmon kill by a gravel mining operation on the Fraser, proliferation of open-net salmon farms despite the recommendations of provincial and federal inquiries, Teck Resources dumping into the Columbia River for years, the revolving door of short term water permits by the fracking industry to avoid the regulatory requirements of actual water licences, fracking waste being illegally dumped into Dawson Creek’s sewer system and the city at risk of being held liable for it, contamination of ground and surface waters through poor agricultural practices, elevated levels of cadmium in fish from Buttle Lake, mining waste contamination of the Tsolum River, cyanide contamination of groundwater near Grand Forks, oil pipeline spills near Merrit, Coquihalla Summit, Abbotsford and Burnaby. The list goes on. And on.
'not only a failure of a tailings dam, but of regulation and planning'
For years now governments at the provincial and federal levels have been getting out of the regulation of industry, cutting budgets and staff and leaving industry to self-regulate in an environment that has been designed since confederation to enable resource extraction. The result is predictable.
In the case of the Mount Polley disaster, we witness not only a failure of a tailings dam, but of regulation and planning. Water has been a problem at the Mount Polley Mine for years. An environmental consultant was hired in 2009 by the Xatsull First Nation, Williams Lake First Nation and Imperial Metals to review the company's plans to release water from the tailings containment. The environmental consultant asked for a structural assessment of the dam. That assessment was never done. The company received a permit to release 1.4 billion litres of water per year from the tailings, but it was not sufficient and the company recently applied to more than double the amount of water it was allowed to release to 3 billion litres per year. That application was still under review at the time of the tailings dam failure. Could capping production have kept tailings levels from getting too high?
Record Snowfall, Record Rain...
Mill throughput at the mine is measured in tonnes per day. Average throughput in 2012 was a record 22,191 tonnes per day. 2013’s average was a bit less at 21,799. The first quarter of 2014 was down to 18,791 due to mechanical trouble and record snowfall but throughput recovered to a high in April of 23,930 tonnes per day. By May the tailings were over their authorized level and they remained over limit until June 30. A former foreman at the dam, Gerald MacBurney, said that the dam was breached in May and that the breach weakened the whole system.
On July 22, Environment Canada issued a special weather statement for the entire South Central Interior of B.C., warning of 25 to 50 millimetres of rain. When the rains rolled through on July 23, 25 millimetres fell on Kamloops in about as many minutes. The same storm passed over Mount Polley Mine. If as much rain fell there that would be upward of 50-million litres of water* dropped into the tailings, not to mention runoff from uphill of the tailings, or the effect of heavy rains on an earthen structure. Did that rain contribute to the failure? Was the failure a surprise? Not, apparently, to Gerald MacBurney who said regarding the part of the dam weakened in May “And that’s where it popped, right where it was breached. … I knew it was going to burst.”
The Minister of Energy and Mines said the day after the breach that “the flow may have continued into Quesnel Lake.” One has to wonder whether the Minster had looked at any of the news coverage. The picture to the right is of the formerly 1.2m wide Hazeltine Creek where it drains into Quesnel Lake. Now about 50m wide even before it fans out into the lake, it seems pretty clear that the flow continued into the lake.
The Minister went on to say “This is a serious incident that should not have happened.” and “we are determined to prevent an incident like this from happening again.” Clearly. So how do we prevent an incident like this from happening again? Not with the same system that issued repeated warnings to the company but required no action. Not with the same system that disables itself through budget and staff cuts and that has allowed incidents like this time and time again in the past, feigning surprise and outrage every time.
What we need is new models of governance where expert recommendations don’t simply gather dust on a shelf. Where the concerns of local people are not ignored by decision makers in distant cities. Where concerns of experienced front-line people like Gerald MacBurney are addressed and incidents like this prevented rather than responded to. We need planning that would, for example, put in place capacity to manage tailings before allowing the tailings to be produced, and that would project for the likelihood of greater frequency and severity of extreme weather events and engineer to cope. It’s not a vision that says we will do away with copper mines. Rather it is one that says we will have copper mines and drinkable water, edible fish, swimmable lakes.
'We’re on our way there'
We’re on our way there. The old BC Water Act, written in 1909, was drafted to ensure that industry would not be hindered for want of water. The new BC Water Sustainability Act holds the potential to ensure that industry gets the water it needs, but within the limits of natural systems. It has new provisions for environmental flows and for forms of governance that are responsive to local knowledge, local needs and local conditions. WaterWealth, having been one of the leading groups in the push for this new legislation, is now working to build capacity in our region to implement those new provisions.
The new governance enabled under the Water Sustainability Act is as yet undefined. While there are existing bodies in the province and elsewhere that can be examined to inform what watershed governance might look like in BC, we are breaking new ground. We hope you are with us. At less than two years old we are still a young organization and the future is by no means certain. We need every volunteer, every donor, every letter of support, every like, share or retweet on our social media feeds, every passed-along news story and alert of breaking local issues. We need all hands on deck to make positive change that brings our collective actions in line with our collective awareness that water is life.
From his vantage point over the now empty tailings ‘pond’ on Mount Polley, I’m sure Dad would be on board.
Our Wealth is in Our Water
Let's Protect It
* This post originally stated regarding the heavy rain of July 23 that the volume of water added to the pond might be "4km x 4km x 25mm, or 400 million litres of water". It turned out that I had misunderstood the information I had heard and read about the size of the tailings pond and that the pond is about 5km around, not 4 or 5 km per side. Thanks Stephan Krueger for the correction! (Though Provincial updates include "The tailings pond at Mount Polley Mine is four kilometres by four kilometres.", measuring on Google satellite view shows that it is less.)
Using the rough 2 kilometer diameter as you suggest Ian we would get the 10 million at just over 3 meters deep. So even at that smaller diameter the government and industry have under estimated by a factor of ten. And – if the tailings Lake was actually 5 kilometers in diameter the under-estimation is by a factor of 100.
Why is this not non-stop front page headline news?
The latest figure I’ve seen says the walls of the tailings dam were 35 metres tall. The depth of the tailings, as can be seen in satellite views, varies with the slope up toward the mine and the slope of the tailings walls themselves. We don’t have a depth figure from which to try to figure our the volume within the tailings containment. Nor do we know how much of what was contained there may have been heavy enough not to have flowed out.
The company said that 10 million cubic metres of water and 4.5 million cubic metres of sand (total of 14.5 billion litres) was released. Using that figure with 1.8 square km area would give an average depth of 8 metres. Looking at the satellite view, does that seem reasonable? Hard to say, but I think it might be.
I believe you are correct that this is the largest tailings spill ever. I haven’t found any larger online.
So why is it the number 10 million cubic meters (up from the originally claimed 5 million), is repeatedly claimed when it is such an easy calculation to get over 50 million?
Am I missing something here? Another calculation, if we were to apply this number in the same way many use to describe an oil spill, in litres, we need to multiply this by 1000.
This means 50,000,000,000 – (50 billion) liters of toxic sludge and waste was released.
The other issue I am curious to get feedback on is how, through my investigations, this was the largest spill from a tailings pond anywhere across the globe, ever in history. I read reports comparing the size of the spill to others in recent history, yet the news should be “The largest ever in human history.”
Based on my calculations of the total area (2.25 sq km) and the maximum capacity of 70 million dry tonnes that was reported by an environmental consultant in 2004, I came up with a minimum average height of 30 metres for the enclosure, which is what I already assumed from the photos.
It was clearly a big mistake to allow the water to accumulate to such high levels (5 times what the pond was designed for, according to one former employee). So, if the water had been only 2-3 million cubic metres in total, that might have been just barely manageable under the current height of the dam. 10 million cubic metres of water (supernatant) on top of the wet tailings was really pushing it, IMHO.
I have one small correction to make, as to the actual size of the tailings pond at Mount Polley Mine. I have seen in the media descriptions of 4 km long, 4 km squared, 4 sq km, etc. What they really meant is that the total length of the three embankment sides of the enclosure is a little over 4 km, from my calculation using Google Map. I have seen one article correctly state that the total area of the pond is roughly 2 sq km, although my calculation puts it at 2.25 sq km.
The shape of the enclosing walls does not make a perfect square as the walls have several changes in direction over the entire span. All 3 sides that compose the earthen dam are different lengths, with the longest one being the north-east perimeter embankment, where the breach occurred (the 4th side is actually part of the mountain slope).
My calculation of the total amount of water added by that rainfall in July is closer to 56,000 cubic metres of water added to the pond, by a 25mm rainfall. That’s 1/200th of the total that escaped in the breach (10 million cubic metres). Still, that’s a significant amount, especially if the dam was already near the breaking point of its capacity.