A tailings pond breach has sent rivers of toxic slurry cascading into three lakes in British Columbia, contaminating drinking water, endangering major salmon runs and prompting a fishing ban.
The breach happened before dawn on August 4 in Imperial Metals’ Mount Polley tailings pond, when 2.6 billion gallons of water mixed with 1.2 billion gallons of fine sediment laden with metals poured over the sides of the pond and rushed through the woods into rivers and lakes in the area. A local state of emergency has been declared, and First Nations are furious.
“As of last night, Department of Fisheries and Oceans has banned salmon fishing in the Cariboo and Quesnel Rivers due to Mount Polley,” said Chief Bob Chamberlin, Vice-President of the Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs, in a statement on August 6. “Mount Polley will have an immediate and devastating effect on First Nations like Lhtako Dene, Lhoosk’uz Dene, Nazkoand ?Esdilagh who may not be able to fish for salmon at all this year. First Nations are anxiously awaiting the water-test results, the possible DFO closures afterwards and the harmful impacts on future salmon runs of the Fraser.”
The spill is catastrophic, First Nations leaders said. Grand Chief Stewart Phillip, president of the Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs, likened its scope to the Exxon Valdez disaster, which sent 53.1 million gallons of crude oil into Prince William Sound in 1985.
“Like the Exxon Valdez, Mount Polley will be synonymous with one of the most disastrous environmental events in British Columbia,” Phillip said in the chiefs’ statement.
The breach followed years of warnings to Imperial Metals, most recently in May when the company was chastised for too-high wastewater levels in its tailings pond, CBC News reported. The mining company had applied to change its operating permit to increase the amount of wastewater discharge, a Ministry of Environment spokesperson told CBC News.
Incidences such as this were exactly what First Nations had been worried about when expressing concern over legislation that they say gutted environmental oversight.
“The frightening fact is both environmental disasters could have been prevented if there was vigorous government oversight by an effectively resourced agency bound by robust legislative and regulatory environmental safeguards,” Phillip said in the statement. “What we have now in BC and Canada, as a consequence of weak environmental review procedures and the federal omnibus bills C-38 and C-45, are repugnant and reprehensible processes of rubber-stamp approvals that shamelessly pander to industry and tragically at the great expense of environmental devastation.”