Canadians Remember the Mount Polley Tailings Dam Failure

By Tara Scurr, Business and Human Rights Campaigner with Amnesty International Canada

“We were woken up from a deep sleep in the middle of the night. It sounded like a low-flying airplane or an earthquake – I couldn’t fathom what it was. We took the grandkids and ran for higher ground. We didn’t know what was happening. ” — Resident of Likely, BC

As morning dawned on August 4, 2014, it became clear that something terrible had happened near the tiny community of Likely, BC.  Residents awoke to the devastating news that the Mount Polley copper mine tailings pond had burst its banks, sending 25 million cubic litres of mine waste water and toxic slurry rushing down Hazeltine Creek. The onslaught of water and debris destroyed the creek and deposited masses of silt and sludge at the bottom of Quesnel Lake, metres deep in some areas. Residents, workers and surrounding communities were shaken to the core. 

Two years on, the shock has given way to anger. Residents, such as tourism operators who rely on a pristine environment and other small business owners, were told they will not be compensated by the Province for their financial and reputational losses. Others who were proud to drink water or eat fish from Quesnel Lake no longer trust the water, even if test results show the water is safe. Yet others say they would like the mine to reopen at full capacity, but are bothered that the site hasn’t been fully cleaned up and the company hasn’t got a long-term water treatment plan. 

Despite speeches by Premier Christy Clark in the aftermath of the spill that the Province will make sure the environment is returned to a pristine state, the town of Likely remains divided and wary that the Province has the political will to guarantee their human rights and provide them with an effective remedy for the disaster. An independent experts investigation into the tailings dam failure blamed faulty design and construction for the spill but the company has not yet faced charges or penalties for the spill and the destruction of Hazeltine Creek. 

Shockingly, and despite pleas from affected communities, in June 2016, the Province approved Mount Polley Mining Corporation’s application to resume full operations at the mine site despite the fact that MPMC has not completed a water management plan. The company has until the end of 2016 to submit a plan and until then it will continue to send mine effluent into Quesnel Lake. 

Since the disaster, the Province has tried to give the impression that it is a responsible manger of BC’s natural resources and that when disasters like Mount Polley strike, the polluter pays. This is questionable. 

This spring, the Union of BC Indian Chiefs released a report which laid bare the lie that mining companies operating in BC have enough money set aside to cover the costs associated with mine site reclamation. According to the report, financial assurances for site reclamation in BC are underfunded by over $1 billion dollars; these same companies are not required to post any financial assurances for unexpected environmental harms. BC residents could be on the hook for hundreds of millions of dollars. 

Most telling perhaps is a damning report released in May by BC’s Auditor General which concluded that the Province’s Ministries of Energy and Mines and Environment failed miserably to protect the public’s interests from environmental risks from mining. Auditor General Catherine Bellringer said, “Almost all of our expectations for a robust compliance and enforcement program were not met.” She said that to avoid future disasters like Mount Polley, “business cannot continue as usual” and recommended that compliance and enforcement be removed from the Ministry of Energy and Mines and turned over to an independent unit. She made 16 further recommendations which the Minister of Energy and Mines Bill Bennett says will be adopted, although he does not agree to the creation of an independent compliance and enforcement unit. 

The independent experts panel which investigated the causes of the Mount Polley tailings pond breach estimate that BC residents can expect 2 such tailings pond failures in the Province every decade. It is becoming clear that the Province must urgently improve the safety of tailings ponds through design, construction, compliance, and enforcement as well as ensure that companies set aside enough money in financial assurances to cover costs associated with disasters like Mount Polley. Likely residents told Amnesty International researchers that the disaster should be seen as a wake-up call to BC residents and all Canadians. 

For the second anniversary of the Mount Polley tailings dam disaster, let us remember the residents of Likely, BC, who still seek justice and a genuine promise that nothing like this will happen again. 

Tara Scurr is the Amnesty International Canada Campaigner for Business and Human Rights. Follow her on Twitter @AIBHRGuatemala