Water meets drinking criteria, but long-term effects unknown – by Andrea Woo (Globe and Mail – August 8, 2014)

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VANCOUVER — The water quality near the site of the massive tailings-pond breach this week meets drinking-water standards, according to preliminary test results, but the long-term impact on fish habitats and other wildlife remains unknown.

A water-usage ban will remain in place until additional testing is completed.

Jennifer McGuire, executive director of regional operations at the B.C. Ministry of Environment, delivered the news Thursday afternoon at a public meeting in the rural community of Likely. With her were Premier Christy Clark, Energy and Mines Minister Bill Bennett and Interior Health medical health officer Trevor Corneil.

Medical health officers and water specialists collected samples from three sites at Quesnel Lake and looked at pH levels, turbidity, suspended and dissolved solids, E.coli, dissolved metals and more, Ms. McGuire said.

“All results came back meeting the requirements for Canadian and B.C. drinking-water standards,” she said to applause from residents. “This is very good news.”

But she likened the preliminary assessments to a blood glucose test for diabetics: “You can stick [a needle] in and get a number back … but if you want a real workup on your hemoglobin and blood count, it’s got to go to a lab. Our samples have to go to a lab where they are run through special equipment.”

With transportation factored in, some of those tests – which will ideally shed some light on the long-term impacts of the disaster – can be expected in three days. Other testing will continue for some time, she said.

The tailings-pond dam at Imperial Metals’ Mount Polley mine burst early Monday morning, spewing millions of cubic metres of mining waste into the Cariboo district’s waterways and triggering a local state of emergency. A water-usage ban has left up to 300 residents dependent on bottled water and refilling jugs from communal tanks. Residents are also advised not to swim or bathe in the water, or feed it to pets or livestock.

Dr. Corneil said the ban will remain in place until Polley Lake – which drains into Quesnel Lake – can be tested as well.

The area around Polley Lake has been unstable, which has hampered water-testing efforts to date. Mr. Bennett said Imperial Metals has a ministry-approved plan to pump some water out of Polley Lake into neighbouring pits to mitigate the risk of tailings coming loose and rushing into Hazeltine Creek.

Since 2012, the Ministry of Environment has conducted 14 inspections on the Mount Polley mine site, issuing five warnings. On Wednesday, Mr. Bennett had refuted reports that there had been red flags at the mine over the years, noting only one of the five warnings related to water levels.

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