B.C. orders cleanup after mine waste discharged into waterways – by Andrea Woo (Globe and Mail – August 7, 2014)

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VANCOUVER — Three months ago, the Mount Polley mine experienced a small, but notable, breach that was quickly corrected when the gold and copper operation “got itself into compliance,” according to the province’s mines minister.

But environmental advocates say the incident should have served as a warning to avert the massive tailings-pond failure this week that has spewed millions of cubic metres of potentially contaminated waste into central British Columbia’s waterways, a disaster believed to be the largest of its kind in Canadian history.

The Mount Polley tailings pond damn burst early Monday morning, spewing enough mining waste water into the Cariboo district’s waterways to fill 2,000 Olympic-sized swimming pools. The Cariboo Regional District declared a local state of emergency; up to 300 residents in the rural community of Likely remain without clean water for drinking or bathing.

On Wednesday, the B.C. government ordered Imperial Metals Corporation, which owns the mine, to undertake an environmental impact assessment and submit cleanup plans to the Ministry of Environment.

The exact cause of Monday’s rupture is under investigation. There are three inspectors on site and two consulting companies are working with the Ministry of Energy and Mines, Minister Bill Bennett said.

Mr. Bennett played down the significance of the May breach, noting that a routine, annual geotechnical inspection of the site that same month found “no evidence to indicate” there was cause for concern.

“We don’t have indication, certainly that I’m aware of yet, in our files, that any inspectors since [the mine opened in] 1997 had a concern about the tailings dam,” he said.

In May, water in the Mount Polley tailings pond – into which mining waste is dumped – had climbed too high, in contravention of B.C.’s Environmental Management Act, which requires at least half a metre between the waterline and the top of the pond. The Ministry of Energy and Mines issued an advisory to the company, which then pumped some water into an empty pit and “got itself into compliance.”

Calvin Sandborn is legal director at the University of Victoria’s Environmental Law Centre, which has long called for stricter regulation of the mining industry. He viewed the ministry’s May advisory to Mount Polley – which Mr. Bennett said was the only warning the mine has ever received – as hardly a slap on the wrist.

“The minister’s comment that the company ‘got itself into compliance’ is all too common with the B.C. government, which shrugs off non-compliances and tries to coax and cajole companies to stop breaking the rules,” Mr. Sandborn said. “It’s not just up to the company to ‘get itself into compliance’; that’s the government’s job, and they failed miserably here.”

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