Tailings Ponds are the Biggest Environmental Disaster You’ve Never Heard Of – by Peter Moskowitz (Vice News – August 8, 2014)


The scale is hard to imagine: gray sludge, several feet deep, gushing with the force of a fire hose through streams and forest—coating everything in its path with ashy gunk. What happened on Monday might have been one of North America’s worst environmental disasters in decades, yet the news barely made it past the Canadian border.

Last Monday, a dam holding waste from the Mount Polley gold and copper mine in the remote Cariboo region of British Columbia broke, spilling 2.6 billion gallons of potentially toxic liquid and 1.3 billion gallons of definitely toxic sludge out into pristine lakes and streams. That’s about 6,000 Olympic-sized swimming pools of water and waste containing things like arsenic, mercury, and sulphur. Those substances are now mixed into the water that 300 people rely on for tap, hundreds from First Nations tribes rely on for hunting and fishing, and many others rely on for the tourism business.

“It’s an environmental disaster. It’s huge,” said Chief Ann Louie of the Williams Lake Indian Band, whose members live in the Cariboo region and use the land for hunting and fishing. “The spill has gone down Hazeltine Creek, which was 1.5 meters wide and is 150 meters wide… The damage done to that area, it’ll never come back. This will affect our First Nations for years and years.”

The waste came from a “tailings pond,” an open-air pit that mines use to store the leftovers of mining things like gold, copper, and, perhaps most notably in Canada, the tar sands—the oil-laden bitumen composites that have made the Keystone XL Pipeline so controversial.

The term “pond” can be a little misleading, as the structures can grow to the size of Central Park.

As Canada’s industry-friendly government has sold off hundreds of square miles of forest for mining over the past few years, toxic tailings ponds have become a regular feature of once-pristine Northern Canadian landscapes.

Environmentalists say they’re disasters in the making, and they say the Mount Polley spill is proof. While this week’s incident was notable for its size, Canadian environmentalists and indigenous activists say it may be a sign of things to come for the country, and perhaps the rest of the world as well, as mining for everything from rare earth metals to coal increases globally.

“Any time you rely on a dyke to contain something, whether it’s water or tailings, it’s going to fail some day, sooner or later,” said Henry Vaux, a resource economist at the University of California Riverside. “To think they’re bullet-proof is to fool yourself.”

It’s too early to tell just how extensive the damage from the Mount Polley mine is, but environmentalists like Mining Watch Canada’s Ramsey Hart are calling it an “environmental catastrophe,” bigger than the country has seen in years.

The tailings pond contained up to 85,000 pounds of lead, 152 tons of copper, and about 1,000 pounds of mercury, among many other heavy metals and potentially toxic substances, according to a government report. Now, many of those metals may be sitting in lakes and rivers, including one that’s home to one of the biggest salmon populations in the world.

Brian Kynoch, the president of Imperial Metals, which owns the mine, tried to calm an angry crowd at a meeting near the disaster area on Tuesday by saying the water was likely safe. “I’d drink the water,” he said.

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