Anger and confusion after worst disaster in Canadian mining history darkens prosperous B.C. town – by Brian Hutchinson (National Post – September 13, 2014)

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“Check your knives at the bar,” reads a sign inside this village’s only watering hole. In hard times, before the Mount Polley mine opened 17 years ago, there wasn’t much work to be found, and folks sometimes turned as sour as the cheap beer and boxed wine. Things could get rough inside the Likely saloon.

Likely has enjoyed much better days lately, thanks to the mine and the wealth it was generating. But one morning in early August, a section of the tailings pond dam up at the Mount Polley mine crumbled, releasing 10 million cubic metres of dirty mine water and almost five million cubic metres of finely crushed rock, known as tailings.

The water and tailings formed a thick slurry that roared down Hazeltine Creek, knocking down trees and anything else in its way. It poured into Quesnel Lake, one of the largest — and the deepest — fresh water lakes in B.C.

Since that cataclysmic event, the worst of its kind in Canadian mining history, a cloud has hung over little Likely, a village of perhaps 350 huddled at the top of Quesnel Lake, 600 kilometres north of Vancouver. There is anger here, and resentment. Divisions have formed and blame is assigned. But confusion reigns.

Some local residents and First Nations members claim their lake is now fatally toxic, that the water is peeling skin from fish and is even burning human flesh. Others say that’s just wild fear-mongering. The fact is, no one knows what the accident really means for their lake and their town, even four weeks later.

But everyone agrees that Quesnel Lake has just turned a weird shade of green.

Quesnel Lake is everything to the folks in Likely. Many drink from it. They bathe in lake water, and use it for cooking, They pull fish from it, and have for decades. Tourists come to enjoy it, or they did.

Few can accept that the water is now safe to drink and the fish are safe to consume, despite assurances from B.C.’s Ministry of Health, which is testing frequently. A plume of mine tailings continues to move around the lake. It’s not clear where, or when, it will settle.
And no one knows what will become of the once-lucrative mine that’s now bleeding cash. Its owner, Vancouver-based Imperial Metals Corp., is spending millions of dollars and raising additional funds to cover mounting clean-up costs, and there’s no end in sight. Production is idle while the dam is repaired. Up at the top of Mount Polley, inside the operation’s administrative offices, there aren’t many answers.

Imperial executives don’t want to discuss what might have caused the tailings pond dam to burst. “We want to keep our messaging on remediation,” says the company’s vice-president of corporate affairs, Steve Robertson. Instead, he talks about the substantial efforts being made to plug the large gap in his company’s dam, and what’s required to clean up the eight-kilometre long swath of destruction from the mine down to the lake below.

Turns out that fixing the hole is the easiest job. The rest is filled with uncertainty. “We’re still trying to figure out what to do with Hazeltine Creek, and what to do with the tailings in Quesnel Lake,” says Mr. Robertson. Imperial has hired experts from other companies, including engineering giant SNC-Lavalin Group Inc., to help out.

Recycled mine water and dirty tailings are still trickling down the creek and into the lake. The tailings are relatively benign and free from heavy concentrations of chemicals such as mercury and arsenic, common to mining operations. “There’s more mercury in the tuna at your local sushi store than there is in our tailings,” says Mr. Robertson. But there’s still a concern about tailings settling on the lake bed, because they could release metals over time, and enter the food chain.

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