Hundreds of people in British Columbia can’t use their water after more than a billion gallons of mining waste spilled into rivers and creeks in the province’s Cariboo region.
A breach in a tailings pond from the open-pit Mount Polley copper and gold mine sent five million cubic meters (1.3 billion gallons) of slurry gushing into Hazeltine Creek in B.C. That’s the equivalent of 2,000 Olympic swimming pools of waste, the CBC reports. Tailings ponds from mineral mines store a mix of water, chemicals and ground-up minerals left over from mining operations.
The flow of the mining waste, which can contain things like arsenic, mercury, and sulfur, uprooted trees on its way to the creek and forced a water ban for about 300 people who live in the region. That number could grow, as authorities determine just how far the waste has traveled. The cause of the breach is still unknown.
So far, water-use bans have been issued for the town of Likely and for people living near Polley Lake, Quesnel Lake, Hazeltine Creek (which flows into Quesnel Lake), and Cariboo Creek, as well as the Quesnel and Cariboo River systems. Authorities so far haven’t issued water bans for the Fraser River — B.C.’s longest river — which is linked to the Quesnel River, (which flows from Quesnel Lake) saying it’s not yet clear whether the effluent has made it to the waterway.
“What we know so far is that debris from the tailings pond backed up a little into Polley Lake, which absorbed some of the flow, but the majority of it went down into the Hazeltine Creek,” Al Richmond, chairman of the Cariboo Regional District told the Vancouver Sun. “The creek (used to be) four feet wide. Now it’s 150 feet wide.”
The region is sparsely populated, which makes emergency response difficult — Richmond told the Vancouver Sun that only four people from the region’s volunteer fire department were able to act as first responders to the disaster. Right now, authorities are working to test all waterways for contamination, a process that Richmond said he hopes will take no more than 48 hours. Richmond also said he didn’t know whether or not the spill had been contained.
“The potential long-term impact to waterways, the watershed and roads is huge,” he said.
Chief Anne Louie from the Williams Lake Indian band agreed, telling the Vancouver Sun that the spill was a “massive environmental disaster.” Residents have reported seeing dead fish washing up from Polley Lake, a body of water that one resident described as “milky green.” Robin Hood, president of the Likely Chamber of Commerce, told the Province that the spill was a “big disaster” for his town and that it poses a major risk to the region’s salmon-spawning grounds.
The spill may be a disaster, but it wasn’t entirely a surprise. The Vancouver Sun reports that concerns about the Mount Polley tailings pond date back to 2011, when an environmental consulting firm put together a report for the B.C. Ministry of the Environment. The report called for an emergency plan for spills such as this and said the pond should be monitored.
“The tailings pond was filling out and they needed to get rid of the water,” Brian Olding of the firm that completed the study said. “The walls were getting too high and the water was getting too high….it appeared from a common sense point of view that you could not continue to build that up higher and higher.”
Tailings ponds — both from mineral mines like the one in B.C. and from tar sands mining operations — pose risks that reach beyond the threat of spills. Tar sands tailings ponds can be deadly for birds that land on them, mistaking them for bodies of water. Earlier this year, a study found that about 200,000 birds land on tailings ponds every year, despite oil companies’ attempts to keep them off. Another study this year found that toxic water from tar sands tailings ponds in Alberta was leaching into groundwater and polluting the Athabasca River.