By volume it was one of the biggest mining waste spills ever recorded, and it happened just over a year ago in central British Columbia.
The earthen walls of a massive tailings pond collapsed at Imperial Metals’s Mount Polley copper and gold mine, dumping 25 million cubic meters of sludge and wastewater containing arsenic, mercury, and selenium into salmon-bearing waterways. An 12.8 million cubic meter deposit of mining waste remains at the bottom of Quesnel Lake, where about one million sockeye salmon spawn each year. The long-term biological impacts on those salmon are still unknown.
On the one year anniversary of that environmental disaster — more than 1,000 kilometers northwest of the spill site — Alaskans marched in the streets of a small fishing town to protest a recently-opened copper and gold mine from the same BC company. Fishing, wilderness, and indigenous rights advocates on both sides of the border say Imperial Metals’s Red Chris mine is too similar to Mount Polley and far too close to valuable Stikine River salmon stocks.
“It was really alarming,” Paula Dobbyn, communications director of Trout Unlimited in Alaska, said of the Mount Polley spill. “It didn’t flow into a transboundary river, but for us it showed how lax BC mining law and regulation is.”
The BC government has defended its mining inspection and permitting practices, citing a Mount Polley engineering review that concluded the disaster would not have been prevented by government inspections. That report blamed the spill on unstable glacial soil underneath the tailings pond and its steeply constructed dam walls.
Critics say Red Chris has a similarly designed tailings pond: According to a 2014 independent engineering review, it is also built on top of 90 meters of sandy glacial deposits in the headwaters of the Stikine, a cross-border salmon-fishing river. What makes it different, says Rivers Without Borders campaigner Chris Zimmer, is the Red Chris mineral deposit contains copper sulfides, which can generate “vastly more toxic” acids when mined.
Steve Robertson, the vice president for corporate affairs at Imperial Metals, did not return requests for comment.
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