My Turn: Enough is enough – we need international oversight now – by Rob Sanderson (Juneau Empire – JUne 17, 2015)

Rob Sanderson Jr. is the 2nd vice president of the Central Council of Tlingit and Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska, co-chair of the United Tribal Transboundary Mining Work Group, and president of the Ketchikan Tlingit and Haida Community Council.

Mount Polley’s owner received its permit to operate the Red Chris Mine in the headwaters of the Stikine River despite assurances from the British Columbia Minister of Mines that these types of tailings dams would not be used following the disastrous failure of the Mount Polley dam.

B.C.’s words do not match their actions.

The government of B.C. continues to downplay the need for any international oversight over the watersheds flowing into Southeast Alaska stating that we have nothing to worry about from the huge mining projects both active and proposed in these watersheds. The government of British Columbia, through their rigorous permitting and enforcement process, has everything under control. There are even those in Alaska repeating these same words.

So far, just like the permits themselves, these are only words. Words did not stop the Mount Polley dam failure. The B.C. government issued the final permit for the operation of the Red Chris Mine’s tailings dam despite serious concerns about dam safety and the ability of Canadian regulators to oversee these operations.

These concerns were demonstrated by the disastrous failure of the Mount Polley Mine tailings dam in August of last year. This dam, certified by the B.C. government, was supposed to be a state of the art model of a modern tailings dam. It failed after less than 20 years of operation, sending 25 million tons of mine waste down Hazeltine Creek and into previously pristine Quesnel Lake.

As a result of this disaster, the B.C. Minister of Mines Bill Bennett ordered all currently operating mines, including the Red Chris, inspected to determine if similar unsafe conditions may exist. The review released only 44 days later and paid for by the owner Imperial Metals, found that serious flaws existed in the design and construction of the tailings dam.

The review found that the dam would experience significant “leakage” that could cause stability problems. The Red Chris is several times larger than Mount Polley and, unlike Mount Polley, the tailings are considered acidic and could leach toxic metals into the environment. If this dam were to fail, it has the potential to unleash acid mine drainage, heavy metals and other pollutants into the Stikine River upstream from Wrangell and Petersburg and threaten Southeast Alaska’s pristine waters.

The investigation of what went wrong at the Mount Polley site was released Jan. 29, 2015. The report concluded that storing tailings underwater behind dams was inherently unsafe and that if the practice continues, there could be a similar failure every five years. Bennett stated that B.C. “will implement all of these recommendations (in the report).”

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