Almost one year after an unprecedented spill from a mine tailings pond in Canada’s largely pristine province of British Columbia, its government has given the green light for the mine to reopen — worrying environmentalists who say a number of other northern B.C. copper and gold mines are in various phases of approval, and could threaten downstream fishing communities in southeastern Alaska.
The provincial government on Thursday approved a restart of Imperial Metal’s Mount Polley mine, which has been closed since its waste dam failed last August and released 6.6 billion gallons of toxic tailings including arsenic, lead and nickel into salmon-producing lakes and streams of the Fraser River watershed.
Residents of southeastern Alaska, many of whom depend on fishing and tourism for their livelihoods, expressed concern at the announcement.
“The British Columbia and Canadian governments seem to be glossing over the Mount Polley disaster by ignoring recommendations of mining experts who studied the dam failure and warned that the province should stop allowing the same risky tailings dam technology,” said an emailed statement from Heather Hardcastle, a commercial fisherman from Juneau, Alaska, and campaign coordinator for Salmon Beyond Borders.
Scientists at University of Northern British Columbia (UNBC) — Samuel Albers, manager of the Quesnel River Research Centre; Philip Owens, a professor of environmental science; and Ellen Petticrew, a professor of geology — said they had already been doing research before the spill at Mount Polley, and had baseline data.
Not only did they observe elevated copper levels, Albers said, they also saw that sediment from the tailings spill was moving out of Quesnel Lake into the river that drained it — the same type of toxic pollution migration that communities in southeastern Alaska were worried about.
The researchers said it was too early to tell if the toxins were being absorbed into the food chain, and added that they were applying for grants to undertake further studies.
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