First Nations are demanding immediate action, and a lot more communication, from officials at Imperial Metals Corp, whose ruptured tailings pond has sent torrents of metals-laden silt and water—nearly four billion gallons of it—cascading into pristine rivers and lakes in central British Columbia.
Meanwhile Imperial Metals Inc. President Brian Kynoch said that the tailing pond, even undiluted by the clear waters of Polley Lake, Hazeltine Creek and Quesnel Lake, was just about drinkable.
“It’s very close to drinking water quality, the water in our tailings,” he said at a press conference “plagued with technical problems,” according to CBC News. “There’s almost everything in it but at low levels…. No mercury, very low arsenic and very low other metals.”
He said he himself would be willing to drink from the tailing pond, even as he apologized for the breach and the spill, saying that the cause would be investigated.
“I apologize for what happened,” Kynoch said. “If you asked me two weeks ago if this could have happened, I would have said it couldn’t.”
First Nations whose territory is in the vicinity, and who depend on fishing and the salmon runs, said they were not being given enough information fast enough. The Williams Lake and Xat’sull (Soda Creek) Indian Bands, whose Northern Secwepemc te Qelmucw Traditional Territory is now contaminated with sludge, issued a statement on August 6 alleging lack of communication by the company.
“Our communities are filled with sorrow, frustration and anger as they are left wondering just what poisons are in the water, and what is being done to address this disaster,” said Williams Lake Chief Ann Louie and Xat’sull Chief Bev Sellars in a joint statement. “Three days after the disaster, finally we have had direct discussion with the provincial government. This time lapse during a time of crisis is unacceptable.”
They pointed out that as stewards of the land in their territory, they bear much of the brunt of the disaster.
“Monday’s devastating tailings pond breach is something that both our First Nations have lived in fear of for many years,” the chiefs said. “We have raised repeated concerns about the safety and security of this mine, but they were ignored. Now we are being ignored again. Enough is enough.”
The Assembly of First Nations (AFN) echoed those concerns.
“We call on the provincial and federal governments and Imperial Metals to take all necessary action to mitigate the impacts of this developing and deeply troubling environmental crisis,” said AFN B.C. Regional Chief Jody Wilson-Raybould in a statement. “It is imperative that First Nations and others living in the region have up-to-date and accurate information.”
Imperial said the breach has been “stabilized” and that the cause would be investigated.
“The cause of the breach is unknown at this time,” the company said in a statement. “The dam is an independently engineered structure that operated within design limits and specifications. Monitoring instruments and onsite personnel had no indication of an impending breach.”
Such response is exactly what had the Tsilhqot’in Nation fighting against Taseko Mines Ltd’s New Prosperity Mine.
“The Tsilhqot’in Nation is overwhelmed and disappointed by the Mount Polley Mine environmental disaster,” the Tsilhqot’in said in a statement. “The tailings pond that has been breached is the same model that Taseko Mines Limited has indicated repeatedly that they would use for the New Prosperity project, which TML vice-president Brian Battison and B.C. Energy and Mines Minister Bill Bennett held up as exemplary. This is proof of the faults and extreme risks within this model of tailings storage facility.”
The Tsilhqot’in, who recently won a landmark Supreme Court victory over land claims, said they were devastated by the environmental damage, coming at a “critical time” as it does.
“This is a devastation. We have fought tirelessly to protect our salmon run for the last 20 years, including enlisting the top environmental experts to help us uncover and understand the harmful effects that would have ensued from the proposed Prosperity Project,” said Chief Joe Alphonse, Tribal Chair for the Tsilhqot’in National Government, in the statement. “This year we are expecting over two and a half million salmon to return with this run just entering the Fraser River. This is the worst situation at the worst time possible. This company will be held accountable.”