Mount Polley mine spill: a hazard of Canada’s industry-friendly attitude? – by Peter Moskowitz (The Guardian – August 13, 2014)

A dam at a waste pond on the site of a British Columbia mine burst last week, releasing 4.5m cubic meters of potentially toxic slurry into virtually untouched forest

The scale of the devastation only became apparent from the air. A dam at a waste pond on the site of a British Columbia open-pit mine had burst, releasing 10m cubic meters of water and 4.5m cubic meters of potentially toxic slurry into virtually untouched forest, lakes and rivers into an area of Canada populated mostly by the indigenous First Nations peoples.

Soda Creek First Nations chief Bev Sellars took a helicopter tour to assess the scale of the disaster. “It looked like an avalanche, but avalanches don’t have toxic waste in them,” she said.

Government reports about the incident at the Mount Polley mine on 4 August have been cautiously optimistic, saying the surrounding water is likely safe to drink, and that wildlife will not be significantly impacted by the spill.

But the industry-friendly attitude that has become a hallmark of both the British Columbia and federal governments in Canada over the past decade has led to scepticism. Local activists and residents say they are waiting for data of their own to determine the safety of the surrounding environment. In the meantime, just over a week on from the spill, they are working to determine why it happened in the first place.

“This is a huge operation that breached because the government was negligent and the company was negligent,” said Cayoose Creek First Nations chief Michelle Edwards. “People don’t understand what this is going to do to us up here.”

The dam collapse occurred at the Imperial Metals Mount Polley gold and copper mine near the town of Likely, in the Cariboo region of British Columbia. The dam’s failure was catastrophic, allowing nearly the entire contents of the mine’s tailings pond – an area the size of New York’s Central Park holding years worth of mining waste – to flow out into Hazeltine Creek, Polley Lake and Quesnel lake.

The force of the spill widened the creek from about 1.5 meters to over 100 meters wide, according to several people who have seen the area since the spill. “It’s basically a debris field of this toxic sludge,” said Jeremy Williams, a local activist and filmmaker who toured the damage on a boat last week. “It was easily knee deep and waist deep in some places.”

Despite the disturbing images of the area that filled Canada’s newspapers and television stations in the days after the spill, British Columbia’s government has insisted the dam failure is not an environmental disaster. The province’s minister of energy and mines also compared the flow of effluent and sludge to an avalanche, but in a positive light.

“The difference is that snow melts, [but] you are left with exactly the same [result],” Bill Bennett told the Vancouver Sun. The initial water tests seem to back up Bennett’s claims, with samples showing mercury and other toxic substances at historical levels.

But according to experts, the full extent of the damage may remain unknown for years or even decades, as toxins from the mine slowly build up in the environment.

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