Groups Urge Action to Avoid Mine Disasters Like Mount Polley

July 22, 2015 Updated: July 22, 2015

A coalition of over 50 leading environmental and citizens groups is calling on provincial energy ministers to implement prevention measures to prevent mining disasters like the Mount Polley gold and copper mine spill in British Columbia last August.

The groups made the plea in a letter to the energy ministers to coincide with their annual conference in Halifax on July 20.

“There are a number of groups in British Columbia—First Nations in particular—that have been active since the Mount Polley dam breached,” said Ugo Lapointe, program coordinator for MiningWatch Canada, one of the signatories of the letter.

“Those folks don’t want another disaster like that.”

The Mount Polley tailings dam failure—the biggest in Canadian history—resulted in the release of an estimated 24 million cubic metres of contaminated water and waste. Besides impacting Polley Lake, the spill emptied into Hazeltine Creek, Quesnel Lake, and Cariboo Creek.

A report earlier this year by independent investigators comprising the Mount Polley Expert Review Panel determined the breach was caused by a failed foundational layer in the dam’s wall.

Those folks don’t want another disaster like that.
— Ugo Lapointe, MiningWatch Canada

As a result of the panel’s recommendations, the province of British Columbia said it would set new requirements for all mines operating tailings sites to have independent review boards in an effort to prevent similar spills.

In the letter, the groups urge the adoption of the panel’s recommendations, including the creation of independent tailings review boards similar to those proposed by B.C. and to create a public inventory of tailings sites.

The Mount Polley disaster has been estimated to cost the company more than $50 million, although exact figures for total costs are unknown. Earlier this year, the federal government passed Bill C-46—An Act to Amend the national Energy Board Act and the Canada Oil and Gas Operations Act—which raised the absolute liability for oil spills to $1 billion.

“A major dam failure has major costs and you need proper financial insurance,” said Lapointe.

“There has been that debate in the oil industry with Arctic drilling, but there hasn’t been that debate that much in the mining industry at all. Our understanding of the current situation is that there are practically no requirements whatsoever at any government level for financial disasters.”

“Maybe it’s about time that regulators set a higher standard and require higher financial insurance in case of disasters like Mount Polley,” added Lapointe.

“What people don’t necessarily grasp with global trends is that mines are getting bigger and bigger with lower and lower grades, which means more and more waste and potential impacts.”

Among the 50 signatories to the letter are Amnesty International Canada, BC First Nations Energy & Mining Council, Canadian Parks & Wilderness Society, Council of Canadians, David Suzuki Foundation, Polaris Institute, and Sierra Club.

Kaven Baker-Voakes is a freelance reporter based in Ottawa.