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Update on the Mount Polley Mine Disaster – Imperial Metals and Government Focus on Covering Up Instead of Cleaning Up

On August 4th, the massive tailings dam at the Imperial Metals Mount Polley gold and copper mine burst. The  dam breach unleashed around 25 million cubic meters of toxic heavy metals and chemical laden tailings water and sludge (enough water and material to fill nearly 9,800 Olympic-sized swimming pools) into Polley Lake, down Hazeltine Creek, into Quesnel Lake and onto the Quesnel River which directly connects to the Fraser River Watershed. Volumes of water, tailings and other debris released into the environment by the August 4 breach of Imperial Metals’ tailings pond at Mount Polley Mine were at least 70% higher than the initial estimates released to the public when the disaster occured.The Quesnel Lake watershed is a major source of drinking water and home to one quarter of the province’s sockeye salmon.This is the largest mining disaster to occur in Canada and it’s still unfolding. 

The Imperial Metals Mount Polley mine is located on Northern Secwepemc territory –  this disaster most directly effects the Secwepemc who rely on salmon as their principal food source and the impacted area for hunting game, fishing, gathering berries and medicines. The nearby Secwepemc communities most impacted are the Xastull  (Soda Creek) First Nation and the Williams Lake Indian Band (Sugar Cane First Nation). Neither Xatsull (Soda Creek) or the Williams Lake Indian Band (Sugar Cane) were alerted by the company of the disaster. The disaster also directly affects residents of the town of Likely who have no immediate access to drinking. And as the salmon return home, the spill impacts the many downstream First Nations and communities who depend on the fish in the Quesnel and Fraser River systems.

Jacinda Mack, the former natural resource coordinator for the Xastull/Soda Creek First Nation expressed her reaction to the disaster in a recent radio interview. “I know that Hazeltine Creek was little more than a 4 foot very calm very slow moving low water stream. To see 150-200 ft wide 30 feet deep raging river of toxicity coming down the mountain and slamming into one of the deepest freshwater lakes in North America, to the heart of our territory, to the heart of the ecosystem that depends on this lake – all of the salmon, the trout, all the animals, the people who live in this area – this was just so big. The shock was so huge that we couldnt really comprehend what really happened.” Chief Bev Sellars of the Xatsull/Soda Creek First Nation had this to say: “We had a community meeting over at the Williams Lake Indian Band and the tears and the heartache, just people crying, worried about the spill and what that is going to do to the salmon. The Quesnel Lake area is an area where we go and find certain medicines and plants that we can’t find in other parts of our territory. That’s a real worry and concern.”

The Secwepemc Territorial Authority, under the authority of Secwepemc Natural Law,   established a monitoring checkpoint and encampment, Yuct Ne Senxiymetkwe Camp, at the entrance of the Imperial Metals’ Mount Polley Mine. The Secwepemc Territorial Authority is a collective body of concerned Secwepemc who are rebuilding traditional forms of governance and inherent responsibilities under Secwepemc Natural Law –  at the 2014 Secwepemc gathering, they collected over 300 signatures from Secwepemec all over the Nation to light a sacred fire at Mount Polley. The checkpoint and camp began with the lighting of a sacred fire to call and strengthen people of all nations to stand up for the water, the land, the salmon and all of the other animals effected by the spill. 

The camp sent a delegation to the site of the Mount Polley Mine disaster, and had this to report: “Upon arriving, the stench of chemicals was overwhelming and caused instant nausea, the devastation was overwhelming. Plant life had been seared into the ground, burnt by the metals and chemicals in the tailings. Most upsetting of all was the sheer amount of animal tracks in and around the impacted area. Cougars, bears, moose, deer, birds, all had come searching for water, for the small creek they’d always known to be here. What they had found was death”. For more information and pictures of Yuct Ne Senxiymetkwe Camp and the sacred fire, click here.  

The camp’s main objective was disaster monitoring. They received many visitors, from Grand Chief Stewart Phillip and Alexandra Morton, to local First Nations community members, hereditary chiefs, and residents of Likely BC and Williams Lake who have come to show their support. The camp recently hosted a community feast, and also put out their first independent report to help spread information on what is happening at groundzero. Please read their informative report –  You can download their report by clicking here!

Its been over 3 weeks since the disaster began on August 4th and the breach in the dam hasn’t been plugged yet by Imperial Metals. Heavy metal laden sludge is still flowing down Hazeltine Creek to Quesnell Lake. Community members continue to express concern over the remnants of the spill, which sit leaching into the lake, and a large cloudy plume of suspended solids in the water, visible from the air.The government initially lifted the drinking water ban for the town of Likely, and then reinstated it after communities members sounded the alarm that the sediment plume had moved to the the waters around the town and salmon expert and advocate Alexandra Morton found a mysterious blue sheen on the water. At a community meeting on August 27th, the company revealed that the sediment plume tests showed elevated Iron, Turbidity and Manganese within the plume,  and Imperial Metals is now offering to pay for and install water filters in homes of people who are on wells from lake water.

There appears to be no clear plans for cleanup of the spill site yet.The company is saying that it can’t begin “cleanup” until it deals with the dangerous conditions at Polley Lake, meaning it must drain water from the lake, which it is doing – supposedly into pits and definitely via Hazeltine Creek right into Quesnel Lake. They are saying this could take up to 6 months.  At a recent community meeting with government and mine reps in the town of likely, concerned community members asked the Imperial Metals rep why the breach hadn’t been plugged yet – 3 weeks and counting! The company has claimed that they are currently 65% done dike construction to catch and stop anymore debris coming from the tailings pond. Many feel that the company is prioritizing getting the mine up and running again (as Imperial has mentioned that goal in community meetings) over cleaning up its mess. 

The company has also given folks the run around with sharing whatever info they are collecting and many feel that they are downplaying the severity of the disaster.  No information, no accountability, no honesty, no justice. As the mining company and government make assurances about the safety and containment of the spill, distrust and concern amongst the local communities runs high. In a recent CBC interview, Chief Bev Sellars of the Xatsull (Soda Creek) First Nation had this to say: “We are going to be looking at getting independent scientists and people to help us determine whether if the disaster is as benign as they say. We don’t believe it is.” The Xatsull (Soda Creek) First Nation, is going to have to tap into band savings for a community center to pay for independent scientists to study the impacts of the disaster as a result of insufficient funding support from the government and industry. Both Williams Lake Indian Band (Sugar Cane) and Xatsull (Soda Creek) First Nation are working together to address the disaster and have hired independent experts, who have questioned the veracity of government and industry claims. 

Imperial Metals is getting away with discharging the contaminated water into Quesnel Lake as limited testing found that though the water of Polley Lake could cause harm and pose adverse impacts to aquatic life, it did “supposedly” meet “minimum drinking water standards”. The most recent , government water and fish tests revealed that while metal levels are within their guidelines for human consumption in most areas, acute copper and iron levels for aquatic life were “significantly exceeded” at some depths of Quesnel Lake, while fish tissue showed elevated levels of selenium — above guidelines for human consumption — in the liver and gonads. The Ministry of Environment also found  copper, iron, manganese, arsenic, silver, selenium and vanadium in concentrations that exceeded provincial standards, as well as 7 different chemicals,  during testing near the Mount Polley mine Aug. 12 and Aug. 15.  To view the findings of recent government testing, click here. 

The human health impacts of the various heavy metals differ depending on concentration of the metal and duration of exposure (as well as the individual exposed), but here are are some of the health impacts these heavy metals can have:  Selenium exposure can result in the irritation of the mucous membranes in the nose and throat (producing coughing, nosebleeds, dyspnea, bronchial spasms, bronchitis, and chemical pneumonia),  gastrointestinal effects (can include vomiting and nausea), impacts to the liver; cardiovascular effects;  neurological effects (such as headaches, tremors, and malaise) and irritation of the eyes. Exposure to lower levels of Arsenic in the short term can cause nausea and vomiting, swelling and redness of the skin, decreased production of red and white blood cells, abnormal heart rhythm, damage to blood vessels and a sensation of “pins and needles” in hands and feet. Long term Arsenic exposure can lead to cancer of the skin, lung, bladder, kidney, liver and prostate. Drinking water containing copper in excess may, with short term exposure, result in gastrointestinal distress, and long-term exposure may result in liver or kidney damage. When the heavy metal mercury collects in rivers, lakes and streams and combines with rotting plants in oxygen-deficient conditions, it can turn into the more toxic methyl mercury. Mercury can cause skin rashes and impact the lungs and eyes. Methyl mercury is a potent neurotoxin capable of impacting neurological development in fetuses and young children and damaging the central nervous system of adults. Symptoms include impaired balance, numbness in hands and feet, muscle weakness, damage to hearing and speech and narrowing of the field of vision. Exposure to mercury is most likely to occur at harmful quantities through consumption of fish contaminated with methyl mercury, as well as other food sources where mercury has bioaccumulated.

Imperial Metals continues to claim to the community and the public that their tailings are non-toxic – that the Arsenic, Nickel, Zinc, Cadmium, Cobalt, Phosphorus, Lead, Copper, Mercury, Selenium – all chemicals and metals found in the tailings – are at concentrations that are too low to effect anything. Few believe them. It is a well known fact that heavy metals and some chemcals in these sediments will bio-accumulate in the aquatic life, wildlife and humans and the horrible impacts and disastrous consequences of this will make themselves more apparent later down the road in terms of health issues and ecosystem damage. Furthermore, they are only testing the fish for consumption purposes, not the fish health or breeding habits. In a recent interview on DeSMog Blog, Dr. David Schindler, freshwater expert and biogeochemist famous for his work revealing the impacts of tar sands tailings ponds in Alberta, had this to say about the disaster:  “I understand that considerable arsenic, mercury, cadmium, lead and copper were among the elements released. All are extremely toxic.” Schindler said he suspects the biggest long-term threat lies in areas where sediment from the spill overlaps with spawning and rearing habitat for fish”.  Alexandra Morton, salmon expert and advocate, recently visited the area – click here to listen to her interview with CBC. 

As the days become weeks, and as the Sockeye salmon are returning home to spawn, it becomes apparent that both Imperial Metals and the BC government see little problem with turning one of the deepest freshwater lakes in the world into a toxic tailings pond. Some experts believe that the western part of the lake may now have a layer of warm clean water, on top of a layer of polluted water, and below that a layer of cleaner deep water. The elevated levels of  copper in the water can impair the salmon’s directional sense of smell needed for their navigation as they move up Quesnel Lake to find their primary spawning areas in the Horsefly and Mitchell Rivers. As the salmon migrate into Quesnel lake, they may seek deeper, colder water and therefore may accindentally encounter the cooler, denser and more polluted layer of water described above. There is also a shallow area called a sill about 20 km from the outlet of the lake, where the flow concentrates small plankton that feeds young salmon.  The polluted water could have spread eastward enough to reach that sill and could affect both the young fish and its food supply. And finally, though Imperial Metals may be praying that all their toxic sediments sink to the bottom of the lake and stay there  and not mix,  it has been found that in very deep oligotrophic lakes, like Quesnel Lake, deepwater renewal by intrusions and turbulent diffusion is very effective. The mine wastes with their toxic sediments will no doubt go to the bottom of the lake, but if the bottom waters become the least hypoxic (low oxygen),  the metals could go into solution and flux into the water column and upwell into the lighted zones where they will bioaccumulate and have more destructive impacts on the ecosystem. 

 When the disaster began B.C. Energy and Mines Minister Bill Bennett called it an “extremely rare” occurrence, the first in 40 years for mines operating here. He failed to mention the 46 “dangerous or unusual occurrences” that B.C’s chief inspector of mines reported at tailings ponds in the province between 2000 and 2012, as well as breaches at non-operating mine sites. Imperial Metals had been warned by the BC government 5 times prior to the disaster about the state of the tailings pond, but none of those warnings had been enforced. Grand Chief Stewart Phillip, President of the Union of BC Indian Chiefs, said, “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.”

An Imperial Metals representative recently mentioned at a community meeting that the “best solution” for cleaning up the tailings may be to just leave them in place. Watching this disaster unfold, it is important to read between the lines – what is best for Imperial Metals is not what is best for the watershed, destroyed lands, and nearby communities – but in reality what is cheapest for the mining company. It becomes more clear by the day that if the watershed is to recover, if the injustice is to stop, if Imperial Metals and the BC government are to be held accountable for gambling with the health and wellbeing of communities, lands and waters, it will take much political mobilizing, pressure, and resistance to ensure that a proper cleanup is attempted, to the highest standards possible (and not the cheapest price tag) for the sake of all those who depend on this huge area impacted by the Mount Polley Mine disaster. And that the rules of the game are changed so that a disaster like this never happens again, to any community or watershed.

This isn’t only about Imperials Metals Mount Polley Mine disaster – Its about the fact that ALL tailings “ponds” are a problem. If they don’t breach and spill massive amounts of toxic sludge into the environment like at Mount Polley, they leach that contamination slowly, poisoning the waters and lands around them.  Its about the fact that the BC government is willing to cut corners and turn a blind eye when it comes to fulfilling its responsibilities to properly regulate the mining industry, and that its greed driven negligence and corporate free for all comes at a terrible cost to us all. 

Destructive mining projects, water justice, human rights and healthy communities do not mix!  From the Kablona Keepers who recently blockaded Imperial Metals Red Chris Mine and continue to blockade Fortune Minerals in the Sacred Waters, to the Neskolnith of the Secwepemc Nation who issued an eviction notice to Imperial metals notifying the company that Neskonlith will not provide access to their lands for the Ruddock Creek lead and zinc mine – which threatens some of the most important watersheds and salmon runs in Secwepemc territory, including the Adams River run, the world’s largest remaining sockeye salmon. Land defenders continue to gather at the sacred fire at Yuct Ne Senxiymetkwe Camp at Mount Polley and it continues to burn as the toxic sludge continues to seep out into  Quesnel Lake and down through the Quesnel and Fraser Rivers as the salmon swim home. Power to all the communities and land defenders standing up to these destructive projects – they need our support and solidarity! 

Take Action: 

– Support the Secwepemc Territorial Authority and click here to sign the petition for a mining moratorium

– Call and email the BC government and demand they stop permitting the discharge of toxic tailings into Quesnel Lake and make Imperial Metals clean up (not cover up)  its mess! 

Contact Premier Christy Clark

Contact Minister of Environment Mary Pollack

Contact Minister of Energy and Mines Bill Bennett

For More Information: 

Listen to a great interview with Jacinda Mack, former Natural Ressources Manager for the Xastull First Nation/Soda Creek Indian Band about the Mount Polley Mine Disaster 

Stay informed with updates from groundzero of the disaster from the Yuct Ne Senxiymetkwe Camp 

Stay informed with updates from the Northern Shushwap Tribal Council 

Mining Watch

How is Imperial Metals going to pay for the cleanup? Will they pay for the cleanup? check out this article for some good information! 

Mount Polley: Mining is Disaster –  Read this article by Harsha Walia on Rabble.ca

Click here to read more about the true scale of the disaster