Mount Polley Mine – How Bad Is It?

by Dave on August 7, 2014

Mount Polley Mine Devastation

Mount Polley Mine Devastation

Earlier today, I made the post that appears beside this text on Facebook. Direct public link is here.

I got called out on this post because a few photos by local residents are “not a great study” and that I should know better than to buy into angry emotional hype. I do that from time to time (a lot) because I’m not really an optimist when it comes to where the world seems to be heading.

Since I do err on the side of the environment before thinking twice, these reminders serve me well. Today is August 6th and it’ll be August 7th before I finish writing. The news and such will evolve over the next few weeks, but I think it’s worthwhile to put a bunch of the news and science up here to see if I can make sense of where we’re at or if someone else, smrtr than me, can do it for me.

For those who haven’t read my About page, I’m no scientist. I know nothing about mining, geology, engineering, or the relevant chemistry. I’m not anywhere near qualified to write this as there’s no accounting and no martial arts.

Where’s the mine?

That’s the first question. A lot of people up in arms about the goings-on at Mount Polley probably can’t find it on a map. Well, here’s a map.

The mine is near Likely, in BC’s Cariboo Region. Likely is on Quesnel Lake and has a population of 325 +/- 25. It’s about 75km southeast of Quesnel, nearly 400km northeast of Vancouver, and pretty much halfway between Kamloops and Prince George. At a glance, it kind of seems like the middle of nowhere.

What’s the mine?

According to Imperial Metals, the company mining the site: “Mount Polley is an open pit copper/gold mine with a developing underground project, located in south-central British Columbia.”

What’s the issue?

The issue is a relatively simple one according to the news:

“On Monday, an Imperial Metals tailings pond in B.C. breached its embankment, spilling contaminated water and waste material into the surrounding waterways and spurring a state of emergency in the area.” – Maclean’s.

According to the Vancouver Sun, about 10 cubic metres of “toxic effluent laced with heavy metals, mercury and arsenic from a failed tailings pond into waterways feeding Quesnel Lake…”.

According to Global news, it’s “5 million cubic metres of toxic waste.” So it’s probably somewhere between 5 and 10 million cubic metres?

And according to Maclean’s, it’s “10 million cubic metres of water and 4.5 million cubic metres of silt.”

Regardless of how much, it’s triggered a local state of emergency to be issued and residents have been “issued a complete water ban, affecting close to 300 homes. It extends to the entire Quesnel and Cariboo River systems up to the Fraser River, including Quesnel Lake, Cariboo Creek, Hazeltine Creek and Polley Lake.” (Global News)

In addition to the drinking water ban, it’s time for salmon to be returning to the area which may result in both environmental and economic effects on BC. According to Stephen Hume in the Sun: “About 1.3 million sockeye are returning to spawn in the Quesnel system from now to the end of August. On average, if those fish are worth about $30 each in harvested retail value, the economic implications are huge — especially if you extend those average values over 100 years. Then losses in forgone revenue start to zoom into the high hundreds of millions of dollars, compared to the short-term gains from the non-renewable mineral resource.”

Surely this is the first time…

It’s apparently not. “Several employees of the mine, who wished to remain anonymous to protect their jobs, have told Global News the same tailings pond had a minor breach three months ago.” In addition to anonymous employees, ‘Gerald MacBurney, a foreman at the dam for seven years before he recently quit, claimed the dam was breached last May and that weakened the whole system.’ (Maclean’s)

In addition, Bev Sellers, chief of the Xatsull First Nation, also known as the Soda Creek Indian Band, “said warnings in a 2011 environmental consultant’s report about the pond, commissioned by her band, the Williams Lake First Nation and Imperial Metals, were not heeded by the company.” (Maclean’s)

What’s a tailing pond?

The big question is what has been spilled into our environment?

The flotation circuit separates the valuable minerals from the waste minerals. The particle size reduction described above is imperative to separation as the mineral grains are very fine, with a mean diameter size of 50 microns. The valuable minerals, mostly in the form of sulphides, are separated from waste minerals (gangue minerals) by floating and being collected and upgraded or cleaned to produce a concentrate. Initial separation is done in a rougher/scavenger circuit, where the waste minerals are discarded as tailings (which flow by gravity to the tailings impoundment area). Rougher concentrate is further upgraded in a cleaner circuit to produce the final concentrate product. Cleaner tailings are recycled to the rougher/scavenger circuit.” That’s the outline from Imperial Metals

According to Scott Dunbar, head of UBC’s school of mining engineering in Maclean’s:

“When you take the rock out of the ground, you grind it up to particles about the size of sand and silt, then you run it through what they call a concentration plant and it separates the minerals of interest from the waste. The waste becomes tailings, and it gets mixed up with water, and it’s pumped out into this pond. The purpose of this pond, with an embankment around it, is to retain the tailings and allow them to drain as much as possible. It’s basically sand-sized particles, but there’s an awful lot of it that’s produced relative to the minerals that generate all that cash. This waste that has to be dealt with. It’s mostly silicates. If the filtering is done well, which it usually is, there would be very few metallics.

“The tailings pond is eventually drained and the tailings are disposed in a big stack of dry sand. The biggest problem with all this is water–I suspect that’s the problem here. You get rid of the water, it’s a lot easier to manage. And then the pond is eventually reclaimed; there’s some plant life that grows on top of it and other things done to it, too.”

What about the mercury? The Arsenic?

According to Global News, Brian Kynoch, President of Imperial Metals says “We have never detected mercury in the tailings pond at Mount Polley…There’s no mercury there.” He goes on to say: “Another one I’ve heard talked about is arsenic. Arsenic levels are one-fifth of drinking water.” In fact, he thinks it’s almost fit to drink.

Imperial Metals (photo by Jon Woodward / @ctv_jon)

Imperial Metals (photo by Jon Woodward / @ctv_jon)

That he says that is reassuring. That Global News got him on record is great. When CTV went to his office they found it locked with a press release on the window.

According to Scott Dunbar in that same Maclean’s piece:

“I don’t think those [arsenic and mercury] are going to be a problem. They’re dilute quantities—it is almost drinkable, and now that it’s dispersed into lakes, it’s even more diluted. I don’t think contamination is going to be a major issue here. The problem now is what will those tailings do. What’s in those tailings can be an issue, but as I understand it, there’s a lot of biological activity that had consumed most of the metals in the pond.”

The Bottom Line

So what’s the bottom line? Fuck if I know. The news is all over the map in terms of how much has been released, the president wants to sell it as drinking water, the government is being accused of being lax on its regulation, and the mining engineer is more worried about the silt than the water.

I don’t get the impression the watershed is threatened for humans in terms of the water that’s been spilled. A wise boxing promoter once said “What do I know about diamonds?” I’m kind of in his shoes. What do I know?

I’m worried about the silt. What will happen with its runoff and how will that affect our water? Where is the silt that spilled? Is it in the lake, on land en route to the lake?

I’m also worried about the salmon. From CBC.ca:

“”It could alter their senses, put them in a bit of disarray and stress them out,” said Gord Sterritt, executive director of the Upper Fraser Fisheries Conservation Alliance.

“”And they wouldn’t be able to mate and get back to their spawning grounds,” he added.

As of Tuesday night, the Department of Fisheries and Oceans banned salmon fishing in the Cariboo and Quesnel Rivers because of the Mount Polley mine spill. “

It seems like the salmon situation is quite up in the air.

There’s a lot to sort out and a lot of asses that need covering. I hope the press can break through the ass-covering so this incident isn’t just a footnote in Stephen Hume’s next rant about the government being at fault for a bigger spill. The story and fallout will continue to evolve, but it doesn’t seem clear to me where the factual stories are going to come from. Maybe the photos from residents are the story in the end…

  • http://closingbigger.net/ Shane Gibson

    What was posted wasn’t alarmist. It’s fact. Industry whether it’s oil and gas, mining, logging or agriculture has proven time and time again that when they’re left to self-regulate or when there are few or no checks and balances/audits that they will almost always lean toward profit and cut corners that put the environment or workers at risk. We need mines, we need oil, we need lumber BUT these guys can’t be left to self-regulate. They’re more worried about shareholders than the community. Of the 5 points which one is alarmist?

    • Dave

      I’m with you. At a glance, the blame is obvious – the company didn’t listen to its foreman or the study commissioned by the First Nations in 2011. John Horgan, NDP Leader, was on the news this morning and said it’s been 12 months since the Province had inspected the site. There are about 130 more tailings ponds in BC and we can’t afford for this to happen again.

      I don’t know what was alarmist, but I took the comments at face value rather than arguing the points just to see what I’d find.

      The news people have not done a good job, in my opinion. There’s a lot of different reports out there and very few journalists seem to note the difference between the water and silt. With few exceptions, there’s a lot of people getting worked up by talking in circles rather than looking at the situation methodically and that’s just not going to help anyone. In addition to that, the news confuses the impacts with people’s feelings and the fact this should have been prevented. Those three points are all muddied together and I don’t think that’ll help either.

    • http://www.yupana.ca davemacdonald

      I’m with you. At a glance, the blame is obvious – the company didn’t listen to its foreman or the study commissioned by the First Nations in 2011. John Horgan, NDP Leader, was on the news this morning and said it’s been 12 months since the Province had inspected the site. There are about 130 more tailings ponds in BC and we can’t afford for this to happen again.

      I don’t know what was alarmist, but I took the comments at face value rather than arguing the points just to see what I’d find.

      The news people have not done a good job, in my opinion. There’s a lot of different reports out there and very few journalists seem to note the difference between the water and silt. With few exceptions, there’s a lot of people getting worked up by talking in circles rather than looking at the situation methodically and that’s just not going to help anyone. In addition to that, the news confuses the impacts with people’s feelings and the fact this should have been prevented. Those three points are all muddied together and I don’t think that’ll help either.

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