Today, August 4, 2015, marks the anniversary of the tailings dam breach at Mount Polley. The worst mining disaster in scale, though thankfully not in loss of life, in Canada’s history.
It was a shock to WaterWealth's Ian Stephen to watch early that August 2014 morning the video of tailings raging down what had been Hazeltine Creek. Just one week earlier Ian and his siblings had laid their father's ashes to rest on that mountain1.
The impacts of the disaster were very personal in much more direct ways for many who live around Quesnel Lake or the river that flows from it, for people who rely on those waters for their livelihood, their drinking water, or for the food fisheries the Quesnel system support.
25 million cubic metres of toxic water and waste flowed into Quesnel Lake, raising it's water level almost 8 centimetres and the temperature as much as 2.5 degrees C. Questions remain about both the short and long term effects of mercury, copper and other contaminants on the ecology of the system, including salmon migratory behaviour and human and animal health. Following the disaster mine owners Imperial Metals supplied water filters to area residents, going from 50 micron to 25 and finally to 4 micron over the months, all the while residents being told that it was safe for them to drink the water.
The disaster split the local community. Residents who spoke against the corporation received threats. Businesses suffered severe losses, real estate values plummeted. None have been compensated.
The province has spent $6-million dollars on cleanup, some of which it will seek compensation for. Imperial Metals has spent $67-million. The damage is far from remediated. The provincial government has admitted that full remediation will take decades and engineering firms have estimated the full cleanup could cost as much as $600-million.
The Mount Polley Independent Expert Investigation and Review Report estimated that BC can expect an average of two tailings dam failures every 10 years and highlighted the statement "The Panel firmly rejects any notion that business as usual can continue." Yet many fear that business as usual is just what is happening. Despite two ongoing investigations with possible civil or even criminal repercussions, the company has been granted a conditional permit to reopen Mount Polley. Area First Nations expressed concern, calling the mine opening premature.
However, this post is not meant to be a comprehensive dissertation on the impacts of the dam failure.
An Ounce of Prevention...
The point WaterWealth would like to raise is that the Mount Polley disaster should have been avoided, and future such disasters can be. Following the independent panel report, fingers were being pointed at a previously unknown layer beneath the tailings dam wall as the point of failure. The collapse of that layer provides a convenient "Oops, gosh, no one knew" cause that belies the management and regulatory failures that stretched back years before the physical failure of the dam. It should be noted that all members of the independent panel were geotechnical experts and the Terms of Reference for the panel focused on geotechnical causes. Little wonder, and one must wonder whether by design, that the report was short on the contributions of governance to the failure.
In 2009 an environmental consultant doing an assessment of the dam requested a structural analysis. That analysis was never done. The consultant's report stated that "A sustainable means of discharging excess water is required because dam building cannot continue indefinitely," and criticized the company for not having a contingency plan in case of a tailings pond failure.
A 2010 report on the tailings containment noted failure to report a “tension crack” in the tailings dam to the design engineers, failure to construct the impoundment to specifications advised by the engineers, Failure to deposit the tailings in such a way that would create a “tailings beach” around the perimeter as a buffer between the pooled water and the impoundment walls, missed inspections of drainage systems and 40% of peizometers not operational, despite that deficiency being noted in a 2006 inspection.
The Ministry of Energy and Mines lacked geotechnical inspectors during 2009, 2010 and 2011, resulting in no geotechnical inspections being carried out in those years.
In 2011 Knight Piésold, the Engineering firm of record, removed itself from bidding on the contract for that role at Mount Polley, leaving behind a letter to Imperial Metals and the government “The embankments and the overall tailings impoundment are getting large and it is extremely important that they be monitored, constructed and operated properly to prevent problems in the future”, Managing director Ken Brouwer wrote "It is essential that it be recognized, Knight Piésold will not have any responsibility for any aspects of the on-going operations, or of any modifications to the facilities that are undertaken from now onwards".
High water at the dam was a recurring problem and the company had been warned repeatedly by regulators for high water in the tailings containment and for failure to report high water. The dam was overtopped in May 2014 and took a month to return to allowable levels.
Former mine employee Larry Chambers reported that he was fired after raising safety concerns at the mine. Another former employee and dam supervisor Gerald MacBurney has said that the company did not shore up the dam as instructed by AMEC, the engineering firm that took over when Knight Piésold left. MacBurney claimed that the additional rock was never added to the dam because the company did not want to divert big haul trucks from delivering ore to the mill.
A Climate Connection
The winter before the dam failure Mount Polley saw record snowfall. Mill throughput was down. Record snowfall of course leads to record run off. April throughput reached 23,930 tonnes per day, breaking the 2012 production record of 22,191 tonnes per day, this just before the May-June high water in the tailings containment.
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. A mine employee stated that they had never seen rain like that before, some roads at the mine were flooded three feet deep. The tailings containment sat down slope from the mine.
Operators and regulators of industry and infrastructure will say after such events that they have never seen conditions like this, but scientists have been warning for years that we can expect more frequent and more intense extreme weather events. When does a responsibility to plan for tomorrow's climate conditions rather than relying on experience from yesterday's become an imperative?
A Governance Solution
There were many signs of trouble at the mine, going back years before the dam failure. Employees, contractors and local First Nations had concerns and tried to raise them with the channels that were available. According to Larry Chambers that was a course of action that cost him his job.
A routine part of the operations at the mine was to dump excess water from the tailings into Hazeltine Creek. Imperial Metals had a permit to dump 1.4 million cubic metres (one billion four hundred million litres) per year into the creek. They had applied to increase that amount to 3 million cubic metres. That application was before the province when the dam failed.
The new Water Sustainability Act has provisions for local water governance through Water Sustainability Plans. Plans that would be locally developed involving local knowledge and local people in administration of those plans. The exact nature of those plans and the local bodies that would administer them is yet to be defined through regulation development for the Act. That regulation development is underway now and will be on-going for 2 or 3 years.
Done right, such a plan in place on Hazeltine Creek, or perhaps even on Quesnel Lake that Hazeltine Creek runs into, may have provided those who had concerns over growth and operation of the Mount Polley tailings dam with a responsive local authority that was lacking for Chambers, MacBurney, the Environmental Engineer who called for the structural inspection, and others.
British Columbians have the opportunity to see that regulations for the Water Sustainability Act, and the real-world results those regulations will lead to, are done right. The first regulations to be produced by the province was water licence and rental rates. Licence fees have been waived for the 20,000 or so existing groundwater users who will be brought into the licensing system for the first time with the new Act, a multi-million dollar give-away of licences just as the funds are needed for implementation.
WaterWealth and SumOfUs.org, with over 225,000 supporters, sent the government back to the drawing board on the water rental rates to ensure that the rates are high enough to meet the needs of the new Act as suggested by the cost recovery principle in the government's pricing discussion paper. It remains to be seen what the review of those rates produces.
The next regulations up deal with licensing groundwater, groundwater protection, dam safety, and compliance. Public comment is invited by the government until September 8th, 2015 through the WSA blog. Watch for commentary from WaterWealth on these and other matters relating to the new water law.
This is the first major overhaul of BC water law since 1909. Let's make sure that people one hundred years from now will look at what we did and say "good job".
1WaterWealth Blog "Mount Polley Tailings Spill, A Disaster Close to Home"