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B.C. mine update: Independent inquiry begins, as Alaskans raise concerns

Reports are all over the map about the severity of water-quality impacts from the tailings dam breach.

The Mount Polley basin breached on Aug. 4, spilling 10 million cubic meters of water and 5 million of solids.

Since I wrote a couple of weeks ago about the tailings-basin failure in British Columbia, folks have let me know via their MinnPost comments or emails that they’re interested in keeping track of developments there.

It’s a service I’m happy to provide, especially as revelations of problems at the Mount Polley copper mine and in Canadian mine regulation — though a huge story across Canada and in the mining trade press — have gone virtually unmentioned in most Minnesota media, despite the high profile of copper/nickel mining projects proposed for our own north woods.

So here’s my first in a series of periodic updates.

An international issue now

Seeking to protect Alaskan fisheries and other resources from mine waste flowing across the international border, the state’s Department of Natural Resources has asked the Ottawa government for an oversight role in the new Kerr-Sulphurets-Mitchell mine that British Columbia has already approved for a site near the Unuk River system.

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According a Canadian Press report on Saturday, the Alaskan DNR — not exactly hostile toward extractive industries — has asked to “be involved in the authorization and permitting process for the KSM mine, the development of enforcement provisions in those permits, and the development of monitoring programs for water quality and dam safety.”

The story explains that Alaskans were consulted in routine fashion at earlier stages of the project, but have taken the “rare step” of seeking involvement in the mine’s permits and monitoring because of their “important obligations to our citizens relating to the protection of fish, wildlife, waters and lands that we hold in trust.” One DNR official said the state had never before sought this level of involvement in Canadian mine oversight.

Meanwhile, according to a column in the Vancouver Sun, a coalition of Alaskan tribes and trade associations, most of them engaged in commercial fishing, has asked the State Department and secretary John Kerry to invoke the Boundary Waters Treaty of 1909 to protect their interests from “B.C.’s pedal-to-the-metal, slash-the-red-tape mining agenda.”

Kerry had already heard from Alaska’s U.S. Sen. Mark Begich, who said, “Reports that the dam failure followed repeated warnings from the B.C. Ministry of Environment raise serious questions about provincial permitting and oversight of this industry. … A similar failure at mines proposed near the Unuk, Stikine and Taku Rivers would be devastating to fish stocks which Alaska Commercial and recreational fishermen depend on, as well as the subsistence and cultural needs of the Tlingit, Haida and Tsimshian people of my state.”

Investigations and more investigations

In the first couple of weeks after the Mount Polley basin breached on Aug. 4, spilling 10 million cubic meters of water and 5 million of solids, the B.C. ministries in charge of mine regulation and environmental protection said they would be in charge of investigating the spill.

But as questioning of their previous performance has intensified, the provincial minister of energy and mines, Bill Bennett, announced that a panel of outside experts would review not only the Mount Polley breach but the condition of 98 other tailings ponds throughout the province, 31 of them at active mines and the rest at operations that have closed down.

I found that report in the Vancouver Sun, which also has Bennett saying that Mount Polley’s operator, Imperial Metals, would be billed for the inquiry along with other cleanup costs. Toronto’s Globe and Mail  reports that lightly insured Imperial Metals will borrow $100 million as a first step toward covering a cleanup “that analysts say could cost between $50 million and $100 million.”

In addition, British Columbia’s ministry of information and privacy — a sort of watchdog on other ministries — is investigating whether provincial regulators were sufficiently forthcoming with the public in the months and maybe years before the breach.

According to the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, commissioner Elizabeth Denham said she is looking into “concerns … being raised about whether the government knew about the condition of the mine and whether the public should have been notified of potential risks before the disaster occurred.”

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The PI explains that Canadian officials are subject to a legal requirement, “unusual in a country where governments have great powers to guard their secrets, [which] mandates that government and public bodies provide citizens with timely information ‘about a risk of significant harm to the environment or the health or safety of the public or a group of people.’ “

Preludes to the failure

Although the exact cause of the breach remains uncertain, there have been allegations from the start that Imperial Metals was making the basin larger, by raising the containment dam higher, than original engineering envisioned.

Not quite two weeks ago, the Globe and Mail reported  that crews were working to raise the tailings dam by up to four meters at the time of the breach  — and had also applied for permission to increase the effluent discharge, which also had not been part of the original project plan.

Imperial Metals told the paper that the construction work was routine and within the design parameters. The paper found, however, that

To get permits for tailings dams, operators typically must maintain a certain level of “freeboard” – a buffer zone above a maximum fill level – to prevent overflow. For the Mount Polley mine, that is about one metre. In May, the company exceeded height limits in its tailings pond, resulting in an advisory from the province. After the breach, the province released details of that advisory, and four others issued to the company since mid-2012.

The company’s current engineer of record, London-based AMEC Engineering and Consulting, didn’t have much to say because the failure remains under investigation, but observed that “implementation of the AMEC design has not been completed and some construction activity was still taking place to complete our design.”

(AMEC, I couldn’t help but notice, is also the lead firm involved in preparing the pre-feasibility study for Twin Metals Minnesota’s mine project proposed for two sites near Birch Lake, at the edge of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness.)

Downstream contamination

Reports are all over the map about the severity of water-quality impacts from the tailings dam breach, with provincial officials generally saying there’s not much to worry about and others — scientists, tribal officials, environmentalists — saying the jury’s still out on all of that, or ought to be.

Drinking-water standards for metals contamination have not been exceeded so far, as best I can tell, and initial advisories against consumption have been lifted, but there is more concern about the impact on fish and aquatic invertebrates.

From the Globe and Mail:  “B.C. officials say [the effluent sediment] is not toxic for humans but may harm aquatic life. The province says the sediments exceed guidelines and contaminated sites regulation standards for copper and iron. Environment Minister Mary Polak says the area is considered contaminated under provincial regulations … [but] it is still unclear what can be done to clean up the mess until more assessments are done.”

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From Vancouver’s Tyee: “Some of the fish sampled had selenium in their liver and gonads in excess of guidelines for human consumption. Selenium concentrations in the fish muscle, however, were much lower…. Polak said people would have to eat one cup of fish liver and gonads every day to be affected by the selenium, which can increase the risk of heart problems and skin cancer at high doses. The fish tissue also had elevated concentrations of arsenic, copper, manganese, and zinc when compared to fish from 54 other lakes in British Columbia, though levels did not exceed consumption guidelines.”

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I’ve tried to focus on traditional, neutral reporting in my selections here, but was impressed by two close-up pieces that fell a bit outside that boundary:

  • A tour of the spill site with the marine biologist Alexandra Morton, as presented in the Williams Lake Tribune, and
  • A feature in the Tyee about an outfitter couple, headlined “They Killed My Beautiful Lake,” in which the spill’s mud-like slurry is described as moving across Quesnel Lake in gray waves, carrying logs before it and sounding rather like a waterfall.