Massive Canadian Mining Waste Spill Was Nearly 70 Percent Larger Than Previous Estimates


The mining waste spill that led to water bans for hundreds of British Columbians was almost 70 percent larger than previously estimated, according to the company in charge of the mine.

A tailings pond from the open-pit Mount Polley copper and gold mine in British Columbia breached in early August, sending what the B.C. government originally estimated as five million cubic meters (1.3 billion gallons) of mining waste slurry into nearby Hazeltine Creek. Now, mining company Imperial Metals estimates the spill at 10.6 million cubic meters (2.8 billion gallons) of water, 7.3 million cubic meters (1.9 billion gallons) of tailings and 6.5 million cubic meters (1.7 billion gallons) of interstitial water, or the water that sits between the spaces of the ground-up rock in the tailings pond.

“It’s a bit disconcerting — it speaks to the crudeness of the initial estimate,” Mining Watch Canada program director Ramsey Hart told the Vancouver Sun about the company’s new estimate.

Right now, Imperial Metals is working to determine the makeup of the mine tailings and water that flooded the region. The B.C. government reported this week that it had found copper, iron, manganese, arsenic, silver, selenium and vanadium in higher levels than provincial standards near the mine in the days after the spill, but the government also noted that these substances were found to be elevated in the area before the spill, too. The CBC noted in August that the Mount Polley mine disposed of arsenic, lead, nickel, selenium, mercury, and other compounds on-site.

The government has lifted water bans in the region, though it has warned residents not to drink water if it’s cloudy. The Vancouver Sun reports that residents have noticed that Quesnel Lake, which Hazeltine Creek flows into, sometimes displays a “plume” of sediment that eventually disappears, only to come back up again. One independent biologist has also said that the spill left a blue film on parts of Quesnel Lake. Researchers are working to determine the cause of the film.

Some residents still aren’t drinking the water, either. Skeed Borkowski owns a lodge and a fishing business on Quesnel Lake, and told CKNW AM that though some visitors have returned to the lake, he won’t let them drink the water or take them fishing. In late August, government testing revealed that Fish from Quesnel Lake and nearby Polley Lake both showed elevated levels of selenium, arsenic and copper. Still, the government said, the fish don’t pose a health risk, since the levels were similar to those found in fish tested in 2013, before the spill.

Borkowski also said that visually, the lake has changed dramatically.

“It’s just really weird looking stuff. All these piles — debris piles — all the limbs and short pieces of trees or whatever there’s no bark on anything,” he said.

Vancouver Sun columnist Stephen Hume pointed out that come spring, when the snow melts, daily discharge from the Quesnel River, which flows from Quesnel Lake, will more than triple in volume, causing a “tremendous turbulent flushing effect.”

“That’s when the real sediment dispersal problems will arise,” he said.