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Mount Polley mine given permission to discharge ‘treated water’ into waterways

The Mount Polley tailings pond breach in August 2014.

The Mount Polley tailings pond breach in August 2014. Image from Cariboo Regional District’s YouTube channel

The British Columbia has approved a permit for the Imperial Metals Corp. Mount Polley copper and gold mine that allows it to discharge ‘treated water’ from the Springer Pit open pit tailings pond into Hazeltine Creek and Quesnel Lake.

The Canadian Press reports, “The Environment Ministry said in a statement the new short-term permit allows the mine to discharge treated water from the pit, where it is currently being stored, into nearby Hazeltine Creek and through a pipeline into Quesnel Lake. The province says water from the tailings pit will be treated before its released into the lake 30 to 40 meters below the surface. Quesnel Lake is the world’s deepest fjord lake, and a major tributary of the Fraser River. …The Environment Ministry’s statement said the discharged water must meet government guidelines for aquatic and public health.”

The Vancouver Sun adds, “The Environment Ministry said the permit was needed because it is estimated that, under normal precipitation conditions, water levels in Springer Pit will reach capacity in April 2016. The rate at which the mine is allowed to discharge treated water would fill an Olympic swimming pool in about 2.5 hours. The permit allows the discharge of treated water for two years. It has not been determined yet how often water testing will be required, but the province will also conduct independent monitoring, Environment Ministry official David Karn said in an email.”

The Canadian Press highlights, “Earlier this summer the mine was given permission to start operating again and is gearing up for 24-hour-a-day production. …The short-term discharge permit is the second of three approval steps the mine must receive before granted full operation status. The company must submit a long-term water treatment and discharge plan by June 30, 2016.”

On August 4, 2014, the dam at a tailings pond at the Mount Polley mine burst and released contaminated water and metals-laden fine sand into Hazeltine Creek, Polley Lake and Quesnel Lake. It has been reported that, “An independent report concluded last January that the spill of 24 million cubic metres of silt and water into nearby lakes and rivers in August 2014 was caused by a poorly designed dam.”

Grand Chief Stewart Phillip has stated, “Like the Exxon Valdez, Mount Polley will be synonymous with one of the most disastrous environmental events in British Columbia. 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.”

One week after the spill, the Council of Canadians participated in a march to the Vancouver office of Imperial Metals. We also issued the ‘B.C. mine disaster: Clean it up, don’t cover it up!’ action alert. And in late-August 2014, we met with the Secwepmec community of Sugar Cane First Nation/Williams Lake Indian Band, whose territory, along with Xatsull/ Soda Creek First Nation, have been impacted by the mine disaster. We also visited the Yuct Ne Senxiymetkwe Camp to deliver food donations to the Secwepemc and allies who had established a monitoring checkpoint at the entrance of the mine. That September, we also co-hosted an hour-long webcast on the disaster with the Freshwater Alliance that featured Jacinda Mack from Xat’sull First Nation and representatives from Fair Mining BC, and MiningWatch Canada. In April 2015, we stated that the mine should not be re-opened.

In June 2015, the Globe and Mail reported, “The [BC First Nations Energy and Mining Council] has, for the first time, mapped out the 35 active mine tailings ponds [on 48 key watersheds] in the northern half of the province and traced the potential paths of contaminants from dam failures at any of those sites. The survey found that 80 per cent of the chinook and sockeye salmon in the region are either downstream from a tailings facility or would migrate up a river that could be contaminated. It also concluded that there are risks to the drinking water of 33 First Nations and 208 other communities, including Prince George, Smithers and Terrace.”

An expert panel has concluded that, without strict new safeguards and regulations, British Columbia could expect to see two failures of tailings ponds every ten years. The United Nations recognition of the human right to water includes an obligation to protect drinking water, including from mining companies and their toxic tailings ponds spills.