When mines poison B.C. waterways, taxpayers swallow the costs

Outdated laws, weak enforcement leave the public on the hook for cleanup

The scale of the Mount Polley mine disaster is difficult to comprehend. We’ve read that Imperial Metals dumped 25 billion litres of contaminated slurry into Quesnel Lake, most of which they never recovered. That mud was laced with chemicals including arsenic, mercury, selenium and lead. But how much actually spilled when the dam failed?

Think of a standard four litre milk jug (or if you grew up with the Imperial system, a gallon of milk). Six of those jugs would hold 24 litres of mine waste. Now imagine walking past a line of those plastic milk jugs, each one a little over 15 centimetres across. Every kilometre you would pass 6,561 jugs, or 26,244 litres of tainted grey mud.

You would have to line up 952,500 kilometres of milk jugs to hold all the mine waste unleashed when the Mount Polley “tailings pond” burst. It’s not a pond. It’s a toxic lake visible from space. Here it is last summer, patched up and back in operation:

Mount Polley mine
Dead silence

I couldn’t fully wrap my head around what happened at Mount Polley until I drove out there with my family. Bumping along on a forest service road high above Quesnel Lake, we realized what is meant by “inland rainforest”: we were surrounded by huge cedar and hemlock trees, with patches of salal and devil’s club.

We stopped for a lynx that was running along the edge of the road, waiting until it darted into the forest. Then we got to Hazeltine Creek and the trees just ended. The creek used to be 1.2 metres (four feet) wide, supporting spawning populations of salmon and trout. But on August 4, 2014 a wall of mine waste roared through, snapping off trees like matchsticks and carving a canyon into the bedrock.

Four years later I stepped out of my vehicle and into an eerie silence. I could hear the gurgle of Hazeltine Creek in its new artificial channel. But that was it. There were no insects or birds. A haze of wildfire smoke hung over everything. It reminded me of the photos of battlefields from World War One.

Polluters don’t pay, we do

It struck me again that the company responsible, Imperial Metals, has never faced a single charge or fine. You can bet if you dumped a milk jug full of toxic waste into a spawning channel – and got caught – there would be hell to pay. But so far the people responsible for the biggest mining disaster in Canadian history have escaped any penalty.

In fact, taxpayers have subsidized the company’s attempt at cleanup, to the tune of nearly $40 million. Mount Polley crews pushed some dirt around and tried to plant some bushes, but the vast bulk of the waste spilled in 2014 still sits in Quesnel Lake – or has washed down to the Fraser River. Given that I helped pay for the “restoration,” I was pretty disappointed in the results.

Quesnel Lake after Mount Polley mine disaster

The mouth of Hazeltine Creek in 2018.

The company’s real focus was getting back to operation so they could keep mining gold. In fact, in one of her final acts as premier, Christy Clark gave Imperial Metals a permit to pump waste directly into Quesnel Lake. The idea is that it solves the problem that made the tailings dam burst in the first place: being too full.

The Concerned Citizens of Quesnel Lake, a kitchen-table group of residents affected by the disaster, will be challenging that permit at an Environmental Review Board hearing in May. We should all hope they succeed in stopping further injury to the lake, which is home to a quarter of the province’s sockeye salmon.

But who will pay for the damage already done? And who will pay the next time this happens, and the next time after that? Under current laws, we will. The cover image for this article was taken by Chris Miller at the old Tulsequah Chief mine in Northern B.C., which has leached acid drainage for decades since the project went belly-up. B.C. citizens are now paying to clean it up.

Five months left

The NDP provincial government let the clock run out on filing charges against Imperial Metals. When former Xatśūll chief councillor Bev Sellars put together a private prosecution against the mine owners, provincial prosecutors took over the case – and dropped the charges. Just like Christy Clark’s approval of the Trans Mountain oil tanker expansion (which like Mount Polley, came with huge corporate donations), the new government says their hands are tied.

That leaves the federal government. The Department of Fisheries and Oceans has until the five-year mark to lay charges against the company for destroying salmon habitat. That window will close forever in August 2019. That’s why Dogwood has joined efforts by the Concerned Citizens of Quesnel Lake, Xatśūll First Nation members and many others who want to see consequences for this disaster.

It’s been years since we had a fisheries minister from British Columbia. Jonathan Wilkinson represents the coastal riding of North Vancouver. And he needs to hear from you. Please take a few seconds to send him a message, telling him you expect him to enforce the law – and hold Imperial Metals accountable.

If we don’t make an example of Imperial Metals – if we let this disaster slide into the rearview mirror – we will be poorer for it as a people. Not just in terms of the millions we spend cleaning up after mining companies, but in our identity and self-worth as a province. So far the message to industry is clear: come to B.C., take our wealth, poison the water, kill the fish. Don’t worry, we’ll tend your tailings lakes and contaminated sites decades after you go bankrupt.

No more. It’s time to make them pay.

Tell Fisheries Minister Jonathan Wilkinson to hold Imperial Metals accountable for the Mount Polley disaster.

20 Responses to “When mines poison B.C. waterways, taxpayers swallow the costs”

  1. Tony Bone says:

    I can’t get the link to completely load on my phone to sign the petition against Imperial Metals.

    • Lisa Sammartino says:

      Hi Tony! Try clearing your cache and see if that works. Otherwise, could you send us an email to info@dogwoodbc.ca with what device and browser you are using, please? That way we can get our developers to check it out. – Lisa

  2. Leah Drew says:

    Minister Jonathan Wilkinson,

    Hold Imperial Metals accountable for the Mount Polley Disaster. It’s not acceptable for companies to cut corners like this. If I dumped pollentants into a river I would be charged and responsible for clean up or have to pay to fix the problems companies should be held responsible too. The more companies have to pay for dumping pollutants, it sets an example for other companies. The more we pay the more companies will dump pollutions. Those salmon maybe fished as the migrate and eaten by people like you when they are shipped. If you get lead poisoning then you will only have yourself to blame.

    Leah Drew

  3. Deborah Bacon says:

    This is just unacceptable and we need to be holding these corporations to a higher standard. It’s time to stop raping our waterways and ecosystems and then paying for their collasol mess.

  4. walter mcginnis says:

    Who pay? The natural environment for thousands of years. All living organicisms as the chemicals enter the food chain. Maybe the Dog wood Initiative should focus on that?

  5. Laurie Bloom says:

    I’m disgusted with governments handling of Imperial Metals mining disaster. The company was negligent, the environmental damage from Mt Polley mine great and long lasting. Why are tax payers on the hook? Why is Imperial allowed to continue to pump contaminated water into Quesnel Lake? Are we a corporate oligarchy? Prosecute and fine them. I’m sick of environmental and health consequences of industry being externalized, make THEM pay! Same with fracking, and the abandonment of wells. No more public money bailouts for corporate debacles!!!!!

  6. Joseph Fitzgerald says:

    This whole escapade is an unmitigated disaster, and the results are despicable what with Imperial Metals getting off scot free. The BC Lieberal gov’t at the time let these billionaires shrug off their responsibilities and it seems the GreenDP gov’t is about to do the same. Imperial Metals just passed the buck in regards to responsibility for the failure of the tailings dam. The damage to the pristine environment is irreversible, yet little or nothing has been done to attempt a remediation plan.. It’s shameful and a slap in the face of the local residents, and all taxpayers and the people of BC. I’m so disgusted that I’m almost speechless. And all these so called environmentalists preaching their “I’m better than you” BS are standing by and letting this happen. Let’s follow the money. This is total bullshit, everyone should be pissed off at this!!! Where is the outrage? WTF is going on? Who is on our side? Where are you now Dream Weaver? Only concerned with Uber and EV cars to get you from home to the Legislature, because anything outside the valley is beyond Hope? That’s what I thought……….

  7. wilsonicole705gmailcom says:

    Mr Jonathan Wilkinson it’s time for you hold Imperial Metals accountable for what they have done. I can’t believe that the good tax payers had to any money into the lame attempts of covering this disaster in the mine in Mount Polley . This not acceptable and Imperial Metals needs to be accountable before it’s too late. Do the right thing sir do it for the earth,do it for the people of British Columbia and not for that do it for the future of the our children and their children.

    Thank you for your time
    Nicole Wilson

  8. John Fraser says:

    we here in Nova Scotia where Northern Pulp owned by Paper Exellence who are owned by Asia Pulp & Paper which is owned by Sinar Mas who is the biggest international environmental criminals they are proposing to build an effluent pipe to pump toxic effluents into our prime fishing grounds this company is looking to take over pulp mills in B.C. also be careful

  9. Chad says:

    Yes, it’s horrible what happened. But it happened. Why? Not because Mount Polley was negligent. Not because the Engineering firm was negligent. Core samples were collected all around the TSF. Everything was designed and built to the information they had. Studs on a house are spaced every 16″. If a wall fails do you think all walls should be spaced at 12″ or 8″? Framing of your house just doubled in cost. Mount Polley never went back to full production. Mount Polley has spent millions on fixing what they can and haven’t stopped since the breach. They have sold assets to pay off debts. Yes ~90% of the tailings is unretrievable. Yes, there is a huge void in the forest. What can’t be cleaned up, Mother Nature will fix. Yes it will take a while, but this is the best they can do. Honestly, what has happened, is actually a good thing. No one was killed, and now there are increased safety factors in all TSF constructions. All TSF’s in BC had to get their designs re-engineered and a lot of them had to re-enforce their TSF walls so this wouldn’t happen again. A lot of this original post bends the fact and only posts what hasn’t been done. Mount Polley has monthly community meeting and was doing tours of the area. They have nothing to hide. Yes they are shutting down in May. It might be permanent. No one knows at this point, but they don’t want it to be permanent.

  10. Alan J. Drag says:

    We have seen this problem multiple times in the State of Illinois. Unfortunately these problems are all about the dollar. We as tax payers are paying for our representatives to keep on top of these environmental problems but the bottom line is who has the most capital can influence decisions made by our government officials..

  11. Janet Hudgins says:

    It’s come to the point where it doesn’t matter which direction it’s coming from, directly, indirectly, back door, front door, gov’ts of all stripes will fall on their knees to big business and we will pay for its destruction, whatever it is. And if it weren’t for activist-sleuths we would never know.

  12. Matt Woods says:

    Thanks Chad, I don’t agree with the disaster being a “good thing” but I appreciate you having taken the time to post another side of the story

  13. Teri Dawe says:

    Their is no real difference between the NDP and Liberal. Just different colors painted over an ongoing nightmare.

  14. Maureen Mc Clocklin says:

    As a taxpayer I am totally fed paying taxes to clean up rich corporation’s messes. When a company applies for a license to use public land for their enterprise they should have to put up enough money to cover all damages and take full responsibility for the clean up. Why does this never happen. If a government official fails to do this he should be fired for incompetence.

  15. paul lhirondelle says:

    thanks Dogwood what great work you do and accomplish-I appreciate all you’r good work

  16. Finn K says:

    You didn’t send a letter to the intended recipient. You left a comment on the Dogwood website.
    To send a letter you have to click on the link inside the article.

    I’d highly recommend that you take a learning to use technology course.

    Cheers, Finn

  17. Finn K says:

    Agreed. Nobody is above anyone.
    Nobody should feel superior for making small changes. But one should feel proud for making big ones.

    To solve the climate crisis we have to work together and help each other, which includes everyone.

    Keep drawing the attention to the real issues in our world!

  18. Finn K says:

    It doesn’t matter if they built it to standards. It doesn’t matter if it gets better. Accidents will happen, in every single thing that we do. We simply have to shape our society so that these accidents do not mean massive destruction or harm to beings and places.

    The way forward is to kick out these dangerous and corrupt industries unless they fundamentally change the way they operate to ensure maximum sustainability. Which, in this capitalist world, is not gonna happen.

    But now since the inevitable has happened, we must make them pay.

  19. Ellen clements says:

    Good summary Chad! And if they had been given timely permission to release straight water, the TSF would not have failed??

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