And it should not have happened. It is simply unbelievable that this type of failure can occur in an operating mine in British Columbia in 2014. It is too early to tell who is to blame, but it is clear someone (or more likely, many people) didn’t do their job here. The early press reports that the Mine had been warned numerous times over the last three years that their pond was inadequate, and that they had repeatedly been warned by the Ministry of Environment for violations related to releases from the pond, suggest that this was completely avoidable. It is hard for me to write this without swearing.
The company president suggesting the tailings water was safe to drink is, frankly, idiotic, and a terrible dismissive piece of PR. There is no doubt the huge wall or metalliferous slurry that blew Hazeltine Creek from a 4-foot-wide mountain stream into a 150 metre wide mudbog would be, in even the most conservative reading of Section 36 of the federal Fisheries Act, a “deleterious substance”. Plus, blowing the creek out, removing several square kilometres of riparian habitat, while coating the bottoms of two essentially pristine major lakes with potentially quite toxic metal sludge, emulsified chemicals, and entrained fine sediments could pretty safely be deemed a “HADD” under section 35 of the same Act.
Violations of these sections
could should result in charges, and this should provide an excellent opportunity for the Harper Government to demonstrate that their “tough new fines” for serious offences under the Fisheries Act were not just for show. For a Corporation the size of Imperial Metals, this event should bring a maximum fine of $6 Million for a first offence (although, based on the record of recent violations, including spills of 150,000 litres of slurry in 2012, this might not be a “first offence”). If this event – 15 Billion litres (read that volume again) of saturated water/sediment full of a toxic brew of metals was discharged in to the spawning grounds of fully 1/3 of the sockeye salmon in the entire Fraser River system, right as the salmon are starting to return – doesn’t qualify for the maximum environmental fine, what would one have to do?
However fining the company is only one approach- it is clear someone didn’t do their job here. Someone can, and should, go to jail.
This is not all on the company, though. Two Ministries are responsible for assuring public safety and the environment are protected here – Mary Polak’s Ministry of Environment, and Bill Bennett’s Ministry of Mines. Did they do thier job? Bill seems mildly concerned in his press release, but isn’t talking to the public or the media. Mary Polak and the Premier are quiet. They should both be pulling out their trusty hardhats – the ones they wear at all of those photo-ops – and tell us, the people of the province, that they are going to get to the bottom of this, and that someone is going to jail here. But I don’t honestly think that is going to happen.
I guess we were lucky. No-one got killed, and the damaging debris flow took place in pretty deep woods where there wasn’t a lot of infrastructure to be destroyed. We avoided the type of disaster I wrote about 5 years ago, cheekily suggesting this could never happen here. Our sludge wasn’t as caustic, and didn’t enter populated areas, but we released almost 15 times the volume of polluting sludge. This will not be cleaned up in any meaningful way, there is just too much material spread over too large an area. The best we can hope for is that the contaminants will be isolated and contained until such a time that concentrations of the toxic materials dissipate, and that the promised record sockeye run (if they show up) can make it past the slightly-too-hot lower Fraser River to find a place to spawn despite this setback.