By Fiona Koza and Tara Scurr
Today marks the first anniversary of what has been called the largest mining disaster in British Columbia’s history. In the middle of the night, on August 4, 2014, residents say they were awakened by what sounded like hundreds of jumbo jets flying overhead, a sound that continued for hours as millions of litres of tailings water rushed from Mt Polley’s mine tailings impoundment into Polley Lake, down Hazeltine Creek, and into Quesnel Lake.
Shaken and knowing something had gone terribly wrong at the mine, those who were awake rushed to call emergency services, while others jumped in quads, boats and trucks to warn people who were camping or living along the lake. In the early hours of panic and fear, residents told Amnesty researchers they didn’t know whether the community’s children were at risk, if they should seek higher ground, or if they should stay put.
As communications were established and information began trickling through, the scale of the disaster became evident. That day, residents – and the world – found out that the tailings impoundment at Imperial Metals’ Mount Polley copper mine in Central BC had burst sending 25 million cubic metres of water and tailings into pristine Quesnel Lake. Once the shock wore off, residents from the local community of Likely, BC say they became very angry.
While water quality tests indicate that the water is clean enough to drink, residents we met during our research trip in July 2015 still do not trust it and will not drink it. We also heard serious concerns expressed by scientists, First Nations, local businesses and others, about the future health of salmon and other fish species. Because of the four-year salmon spawning cycle, it may take 4 to 8 years to determine whether the salmon have been damaged.
Even though the environment is still not fully cleaned up from the Mt Polley spill and the company still lacks a long term discharge plan for excess water, last month the mine received permission from the province to reopen and has just applied to discharge yet more water from the mine, in the short term, to Quesnel Lake. Is it any wonder that some residents continue to feel worried and angered one year on – wondering whether the BC government will stand up to the company to ensure public safety over economic interests?