Comment: Mines minister must not ignore his own experts – by Calvin Sandborn , Mark Haddock and Jamie Arbeau (Victoria Times Colonist – February 20, 2015)

“The panel firmly rejects the notion that business as usual can continue.” — Mount Polley Expert Review Panel

In all the fuss about the execution of search warrants in the Mount Polley Mine disaster case, we shouldn’t lose sight of the main issue — how do we prevent the next disaster?

Indeed, Mines Minister Bill Bennett commissioned the Mount Polley expert panel “to ensure this never happens again.” So why is the minister dodging commitment to the panel’s most important recommendation? Why has he failed to endorse that vital recommendation — and shuffled it off to bureaucrats for extended “review”?

Here’s the issue: The panel noted that more tailings lakes and ponds will inevitably fail — and recommended that the province move to eliminate such water impoundments across the province, in both new and closed mines. Criticizing construction of tailings ponds as “century-old technology,” they called for dry disposal of tailings.

The panel pointed out a central problem: For tailings lakes to work, everything has to go right, all the time and forever. But human error inevitably intervenes. For example, the panel exposed the incompetent ad hoc management of the Mount Polley tailings lake.

Furthermore, contrary to the government’s spin, the dam was not doomed by a single invisible flaw that inspectors could not see. The panel concluded that the Mount Polley dam was actually failing in three different ways:

The panel was disconcerted to find that, while the Mount Polley tailings dam failed because of an undetected weakness in the foundation, it could have failed by overtopping, which it almost did in May 2014. Or it could have failed by internal erosion, for which some evidence was discovered.

Clearly, multiple failure modes were in progress, and they differed mainly in how far they had progressed down their respective failure pathways.

Such dam failures are simply inevitable. The panel pointed to the 123 tailings dams across the province and predicted that every decade, two of them will fail. Worse still, many of those facilities contain toxic acid mine drainage, which would cause dramatically worse and more permanent damage than Mount Polley.

That is why the panel made its most significant recommendation — calling on the province to discard archaic tailings-dam technology.

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