A massive mining waste spill caused by a breach in a tailings pond has prompted a local state of emergency in part of British Columbia.
The Cariboo Regional District announced the emergency declaration on its Facebook page Wednesday, saying it was doing so in order to “access additional capacity that may be necessary to further protect the private property and government infrastructure in the town of Likely.” Likely is the name of one of the small B.C. towns placed under a water ban after about 2.6 billion gallons of water and about 1.18 billion gallons of “metals-laden fine sand” spilled from a tailings pond into nearby creeks, rivers and lakes.
The spill happened following years of warnings to Imperial Metals about Mount Polley’s tailings pond from the British Columbia Ministry of Environment and an environmental consulting group. Environment Canada has opened an investigation into the spill, trying to figure out what caused the tailings pond to breach in the first place. A clean-up plan and report on the spill, which must include a section on long-term impacts to the local environment, is due from the company by Aug. 15, and the company must also submit a plan for how to stop tailings from spilling out of the pond by August 13.
“This spill is unacceptable. Canadians expect companies to operate in a responsible manner that protects the environment,” Ted Laking, the Director of Communication for Canada’s Minister of the Environment, said in a statement.
Imperial Metals president Brian Kynoch said this week that, despite the fact that the spill prompted water bans in B.C., the water that came from the tailings pond was “very close to drinking water quality.” Though it’s not yet certain what exactly was in the tailings pond (the first water tests are expected Thursday), which held the waste of the mining operation, the CBC noted that in 2013, Mount Polley mine disposed of arsenic, lead, nickel, selenium, mercury, and other compounds on-site.
Megan Thompson, an aquatic ecologist and limnologist at a Canadian environmental consulting firm, told ThinkProrgress in an email that, based on her ongoing study of a breach in a tailings pond at the Obed coal mine in Alberta that occurred last year, the mining company president may not be too far off in his assessment — the water may be fairly clean, but the solids in the tailings pond likely aren’t.
“One thing I learned from the Obed spill was that the water held in the tailings pond above the tailings sediments appeared relatively clean,” she said. “At Obed, the solids appeared to be the more contaminated component of the spill, and from what I hear in the news, this may also have been the case at the Mount Polley Mine.”
Thompson said there are “many things in the tailings that could impact lakes and rivers, especially if those substances did not naturally occur in the aquatic systems prior to the spill.”
“Even a change in pH can have serious impacts, if it’s big enough,” she said.
Tailings from copper and gold mines differ from those of tar sands mines because they typically don’t contain harmful substances like PAHs and naphthentic acids, Thompson said. But if they contain something like mercury, which tends to stick around in an ecosystem for a long time and doesn’t decrease in toxicity like naphthentic acids do, the impacts could be long-lasting. Recovery of the stream bed and banks could take as little as 10 years, she said, but any long-lived toxins present in the tailings could cause the recovery of the stream itself to take longer. The sheer force of the spill, which downed trees in its path, could have killed fish, and the solid material in the tailings that reached Quesnel Lake will settle to the bottom, burying the organisms in the benthic zone.
Residents of Likely, B.C., which was put under a water ban, are worried about the long-term impact of the spill: to the region’s waterways, to the salmon, and to their economy, which does rely on its fishing and outdoors industry.
“People are not happy,” Scott Saunderson, an Edmonton resident who regularly camps in the region, told the Vancouver Sun. “They never should have built that mine here in the first place.”