Mount Polley Disaster

Six Years Later: Mount Polley Disaster Recommendations Not Implemented

By Matt Simmons, The Narwhal, Local Journalism Initiative reporter

Six years after the Mount Polley disaster, B.C. and international regulatory organizations are still failing to  make mining safe, according to several groups monitoring the industry.

Should have triggered Regulatory Overhaul

“The Mount  Polley disaster should have created a massive overhaul in rules and  regulations to reduce risks to communities and watersheds, but it  didn’t,” Nikki Skuce, director of Northern Confluence, an initiative  based out of Smithers, B.C., that aims to improve land use decisions,  told The Narwhal.

The safety  of tailings dams in particular has been under intense scrutiny  following the failure of the Mount Polley dam in central B.C., which  sent 24 million cubic metres of contaminated mining waste into lakes and  waterways, and the 2019 collapse of the Brumadinho dam in Brazil, which  killed 270 people. 

Tailings  are essentially mining leftovers. Ground-up rock and minerals, often  infused with chemicals like cyanide, are mixed with large quantities of  water and stored behind massive dams that are built over time with waste  rock and sand. If a dam fails, the slurry moves extremely quickly over  the landscape like a landslide or an avalanche. 

After the Mount Polley disaster, a panel appointed to review the breach found that if mining companies are left to conduct “business as usual,”  the province could face an average of two dam failures every 10 years.

After Mount Polley Disaster

The panel issued seven recommendations, but nearly six years later, many have not been implemented, according to a new report released by the First Nations Energy and Mining Council last week. 

The B.C.  government has made some important changes to the province’s mining  legislation, but “significant reforms are still needed to ensure the  health and safety of dozens of communities living downstream of existing  or planned tailings dams,” the report said. 

More Large Tailings Dams Proposed

In  addition to concerns about tailings dams, the report also found the need  for improved financial assurance has not been addressed. This means  that when a disaster occurs, a mine closes or the owner goes bankrupt,  the public can be left holding the bill. 

report from B.C.’s chief inspector of mines earlier this year found the province has secured $1.6 billion in bonds  from mining companies to cover reclamation costs, but estimated the  total cost of reclamation at $2.8 billion — leaving B.C. taxpayers on  the hook for $1.2 billion in mine cleanup. 

The report  by the First Nations Energy and Mining Council said more than 12 new  mining projects have been proposed or are already under construction in  northern B.C. alone. One of them is the KSM mine, which could become the largest open-pit gold and copper mine in North America. 

If  approved, the KSM mine would have a tailings pond that holds 28 times  the volume of Mount Polley’s and would be kept behind a 239-metre dam  above an important salmon watershed. 

Another  contentious project is the Red Chris mine, owned and operated by  Imperial Metals (the company responsible for Mount Polley), which holds  seven times the volume of tailings as Mount Polley. The mine opened in  late 2014 — just months after the Mount Polley mine spill — using the  same tailings pond design as Mount Polley. 

“If we actually implemented all the Mount Polley expert panel recommendations  fully … we would go a long way to a more responsible mining regime in  the province,” Skuce said.

Changes to B.C.’s  Mines Act,  introduced in July, could create a new chief permitting officer  position, responsible for setting conditions that allow a mine to open  and operate, while the chief inspector of mines would be responsible for  health safety and enforcement. Previously, the two roles were combined  and sometimes seen to be at odds. 

If the  legislation is passed, it will also strengthen investigations and mine  audits to ensure mining regulations in B.C. are effective and aligned  with global best practices, according to the Ministry of Energy, Mines  and Petroleum Resources.

The First Nations Energy and Mining Council report also calls for better consultation with Indigenous Peoples. 

David  Chambers, a geoscientist and the author of the report, said that while  the province does require consultation around design and construction of  tailings facilities, the guidance doesn’t specify how that consultation is supposed to happen. 

“This  leaves a lot of room for interpretation,” he warned on a webinar last  week about mine waste storage in B.C. “And it’s important to note that  consultation is not consent.”

The  Xat’sull (Soda Creek) First Nation in Williams Lake was one of many  communities that was affected by the Mount Polley disaster. Former  councillor and chief Bev Sellars said she doesn’t trust companies to  consult in good faith. 

“Resource  companies use smoke and mirrors to justify their destruction of the  environment,” she said on the webinar. “They fail to mention that once a  mine is in existence, it will be there forever.”

Allen Edzerza, of the wolf clan T’logodena of the Tahltan Nation, worked in  mines and mills for decades. He is now leading mining reform discussions  with the province on behalf of the BC First Nations Energy and Mining  Council.

During the  webinar, he said the Mount Polley disaster “opened up a dialogue  between First Nations leadership and the B.C. government on mining law  and mining reform.” But he warned that until Indigenous Rights and Title  are truly respected, the province will see more vocal opposition to  natural resource extraction projects.

“B.C.  First Nations have inherent rights and title, which have been confirmed  in the Supreme Court of Canada on many occasions,” he said. “Simply put,  we have ownership and authority over our lands and resources.”

Global tailings standard to be released Tuesday

Canadians  are not alone in their calls for stricter tailings dam regulations.  After the Brumadinho disaster, international groups, including the  United Nations Environment Programme, convened to conduct a Global  Tailings Review, which will create a new international standard for tailings storage facilities

The new standard is slated to be released Tuesday, but it is not expected to be binding. 

In  anticipation of the global standard, an international group of 142  scientists, communities and environment organizations — including  Earthworks and MiningWatch Canada — released a report in June that recommended 16 guidelines to improve safety in global mining operations. 

The recommendations included banning the construction of upstream dams,  which are built up gradually throughout a mine’s life, with additional,  higher dams built upstream of the last, on top of settled tailings. They  are the cheapest and most common type of dam, but the unstable grounds  they’re built upon put them at significant risk of failure, especially  in areas prone to earthquakes or in wet climates. 

The report also recommended banning new tailings dams built in close proximity to communities. 

Upstream  dams have been banned for years in Chile, Ecuador and Peru, and Brazil  put a ban into place after Brumadinho. Mining reform groups like BC  First Nations Energy and Mining Council say Canada should follow suit. 

“We must  do more to protect waters and communities from toxic mine waste,” Skuce  said. “The B.C. government can, and must, do better.”