How B.C. mining continues to feel the impact of Mount Polley

Mount Polley | BCBusiness
The highly public Mount Polley tailings pond spill.

The tailings spill cast a pall over B.C.’s mining industry. Is 2015 the year things turn around?

Last August, a massive slurry of heavy-metal-laced mine waste burst through a tailings impoundment pond dam at Imperial Metals’ Mount Polley copper and gold mine near Likely, B.C., and onto the front pages of newspapers across Canada. In total, 25 million cubic metres of waste rock and water flooded into the Quesnel Lake watershed. It wasn’t the sort of public face B.C.’s mining industry, forever in a battle to win social licence for its activities, was aiming for.

While subsequent environment ministry sampling of fish tissue and sediment, which measured levels of toxic metals like selenium and arsenic, allayed some fears about long-term environmental impacts, the economic and reputational fallout from Mount Polley continues. Operations at the open pit mine, first commissioned in 1997, have been suspended “for an indeterminate period of time,” according to Imperial Metals, and the company is likely facing a hefty remediation and reclamation bill some experts believe could top $100 million. Meanwhile, the company’s Red Chris goldmine, slated to begin production this year, is now squarely in the crosshairs of environmentalists and other opponents.

Mitigating the impacts of waste and tailings from hard rock mines is a complex engineering challenge that persists for many years beyond the active life of mines, due to acid rock drainage that can contaminate water. Defunct mines, such as the short-lived Mt. Washington Mine on Vancouver Island and the Equity Silver Mine near Smithers, have left behind many decades of costly environmental clean-up. That’s why Red Chris is quickly turning into a hornet’s nest for Imperial. In August, a group of Tahltan First Nation elders, known as Klabona Keepers, blockaded the road leading to Red Chris, prompting the Vancouver-based miner to turn to the courts on October 3 to ask for an injunction to remove the protesters.

The cascading impact of the Mount Polley spill now extends beyond Imperial Metal’s sphere of operations. Then-senator Mark Begich from Alaska, in a letter to U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry shortly after the incident, wrote that the spill compounds fears among his constituents that the B.C. government isn’t up to the task of monitoring hard rock metal mines that potentially impact Alaskan waters. Begich told Kerry that he “was shocked by the video of this massive breech” and that it “raises serious questions about provincial permitting and oversight of this industry.” He urged the secretary to put pressure on B.C. to bolster its regulations.

It’s not the first time the question of oversight has been raised. A 2011 B.C. auditor general report concluded that for projects like dams and mines, “adequate monitoring is not occurring and follow up evaluations are not being conducted.” According to the Victoria-based Professional Employees Association, a labour union representing the interests of professionals across B.C., the B.C. government has cut licensed science officers responsible for mining by 21 per cent since 2004.

B.C.’s energy and mines minister Bill Bennett admits funding and staffing levels sagged in 2009 and 2010 but says that a $20-million budget boost for the “dirt ministries” in 2011 has improved field presence. According to the ministry, the last geotechnical inspection at Mount Polley occurred in 2013 and resulted in no orders relating to the tailings storage facility. “We had a dip in inspections between 2009 and 2011, but I think the notion that this is directly related to what happened at Polley this year is unfair,” Bennett says.

Shortly after the August spill, Bennett announced three separate inquiries: an independent engineering investigation will report to the Ministry of Energy and Mines by Jan. 31, 2015, detailing the root causes of the failure; a dam safety inspection by the chief inspector of mines for all of B.C.’s tailings storage facilities by Dec. 1, 2014; and another investigation by the Conservation Officer Service that will decide whether charges under the Crown are warranted. In late October, Minister Bennett also announced that amendments to the Mines Act would allow for more time to conduct thorough investigations. The amendment is effective retroactively to August 1, 2014, and applies to all ongoing investigations, including Mount Polley.

Until all these investigations are complete and reports are in, however, Bennett is not pointing fingers or accepting responsibility for the spill. “Perhaps there’s something the ministry could have done better, or it might be a purely technical explanation. At this point, I don’t know what it will be,” he says. The minister does know that Polley has had a considerable negative impact on B.C.’s reputation as a responsible mining jurisdiction. That’s why he travelled to Alaska the first week of November to give a speech at the annual Alaska Miners Association convention, as well as to meet with politicians and commercial fishermen: “I think there has been damage to the reputation of mining in B.C. and Canada.”

Like government officials, the Mining Association of BC (MABC) has been besieged by calls about Mount Polley. But Karina Brino, MABC president and CEO, says any Mount Polley backlash that results in longer, more cumbersome permitting processes would be unwelcome. “MABC is a strong advocate that all natural resource ministries have the resources necessary to carry out their permitting and First Nations consultation obligations in an effective and timely manner,” she says. “Delays in the assessment and permitting process can impact private sector investment, job creation and, ultimately, the economic recovery that the mining sector is poised to provide.”

However, there’s no doubt that Mount Polley has sent a tremor through the boardrooms of miners across Canada. Toronto-based Seabridge Gold submitted a 35,000-page application to the B.C. Environmental Assessment Agency for its remote KSM project near the Alaskan Panhandle before receiving its environmental certificate on July 30. Five days later, the Mount Polley dam broke, unleashing a media storm and forcing Seabridge to sit down once again with its First Nation partners and other stakeholders to discuss and review any engineering concerns. KSM has a projected production life of 52 years with an estimated $42 billion in total GDP contribution. Brent Murphy, KSM’s VP of environmental affairs, says the company has now voluntarily committed to an independent third-party review of all operations for the mine’s lifetime.

“We’re very confident in our plan, but the mining industry now has a duty to win back public confidence after Mount Polley,” Murphy says. “Earning social licence is an ongoing process.”