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Finger-Pointing and Financing: The Mount Polley Mine Disaster

Recap. On August 4th, 4.5 – 5 million cubic meters of toxic sludge burst from the tailing pond at Imperial Metals’ Mount Polley Mine near Likely, BC (map) and into Polley Lake. Polley Lake levels are rising, threatening another disaster. The government has approved Imperial Metals pumping the toxic sludge from Polley Lake into nearby Quesnel Lake via Hazeltine Creek. (More here and here.)

How big is the disaster? BC Mines Minister Bill Bennett is arguing with local residents and others over whether what happened at the Polley Mine is an “environmental disaster.” No, he says, it’s an industry, “geotechnical and a political disaster,” but not an environmental one. Bennett’s pointing to the evidence of three consecutive water tests that met official guidelines for “arsenic, copper, mercury and selenium” levels for his conclusion. Williams Lake Band chief Ann Louie responded, “I challenge anyone to come up to our territory and look at this disaster and say everything is fine.”

First Nations around and downstream of the disaster shut down all fishing, and “three First Nations said fish are being found very sickly, with the skin peeling off the fish.” First Nations are also preparing to test the salmon themselves to see if they are safe to eat.

Spokespersons for the David Suzuki Foundation, while acknowledging the breach and toxic effluent flooding in the Hazeltine Creek area constitute a disaster, offered a more reasoned and fact-based approach not just for assessing current environmental damage, but also for preventing similar disasters in the future. Throwing up “mud walls” and putting “a bunch of wet, toxic soup behind it” is becoming passe in the industry. Safer alternative approaches to tailings ponds, discussed here, are now in practice in other places. More rigorous monitoring, including for xanthates (toxic to fish), is certainly in order.

Meanwhile, down at the mouth of the Fraser River, sockeye salmon are so thick it’s said “this year’s sockeye run is likely to be one of the best in recent memory.” However, the Pacific Salmon Commission (joint US-Canadian agency) is worried about the sockeye now as they make their return journey up the Fraser to the Mount Polley mine area. So are many others.

Oigins of the disaster.  While the government tries to figure out what went wrong up at the Polley Mine, some familiar with the tailings pond are talking:

*A spokesperson for Knight Piesod of Vancouver, BC said the firm alerted both the provincial government and Imperial Metals about the tailings pond problems at the mine. In its letter (at the link) to Imperial Metals CEO Brian Kynoch, Knight Piesod warned that “embankments and the overall tailings impoundment are getting large and it is extremely important that they be monitored, constructed and operate properly to prevent problems in the future.”

*Brian Olding, of Brian Olding and Associates Ltd. (Surrey, BC), consulted with both Imperial Metals and the Williams Lake and Soda Creek First Nations. According to Olding, “More water was coming in over the years than they could deal with . . . They just kept building the walls up higher every year and it got to the point where that was untenable.”

*A former foreman at the tailings dam claimed insufficient rock was piled “on the outside of the dam to shore it up.” 5 million tons of rock on the dam were recommended, but only 1 million tons were used. Why?  They “didn’t want to take their large equipment . . . away from delivering ore to the mill.” Now they’re delivering rock to prevent further breaches.

Imperial Metals claims they still don’t know what caused the breach and had no inkling of trouble beforehand. However, there is evidence of production speed-up prior to the breach.  Between Jan-Mar and Apr-Jun of 2014, Mount Polley’s output of copper concentrate, gold and silver increased by 46%, 24% and 35%, respectively. Average daily ore production rates, overall, went up 23%.

Industry practices at Mount Polley are the result of “the steady drumbeat [by the mining industry] for deregulation” which resulted in erosion of regulations and monitoring activities. Two quotes from BC Premier Christy Clark illustrate the point:

*In January 2014, she told the Mineral Exploration Roundup conference in Vancouver that “Government doesn’t create wealth, but governments can hinder or enable it. Red tape clearly hinders the creation of wealth and jobs.”

*Two years earlier, she had this to say to the Association of Mineral Exploration in BC:  “Government is a big problem if we get in the way. We are going to get out of yours, and we are going to make sure that government isn’t the instrument that slows you down.”

Sure enough, two 2012 omnibus budget bills “repealed and amended several of Canada’s oldest and strongest environmental laws . . . watered down the Fisheries Act [thereby] eliminating protection for some fish, including species at risk.” Environmental assessment law has been weakened, and federal review no longer required. In sum, “protection for more than 99 percent of Canada’s lakes and rivers were removed [emphasis added].”

Financial underpinning. N. Murray Edwards, oil and gas investor, is the controlling shareholder of Imperial Metals which owns Mount Polley mine. Somewhat press-shy, Edwards is perhaps better known for his investment in the Calgary Flames hockey team, “valued at $420 million in 2013”, up 70% over 2012. According to Forbes, Edwards’ net worth is about $2.2 billion, making him “the most important billionaire in Canada.” As you’d expect, Edwards has ties to BC Premier Christy Clark and Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper.

Edwards is a member of the Board of Directors and Chairman of the Board of Canadian Natural Resources, which has “crude oil and natural gas conventional operations in domestic and international basins, along with a world class oil sands mining operation,” including $25 billion invested in Northern Alberta.

Canadian Natural Resources “made it to the hit list in July last year after suffering oil spills at four sites in northeast Alberta, which are still being investigated by the province’s energy watchdog. Financially, however, the oil and natural gas producer is looking good—recently [before the Mount Polley disaster] it reported profits of $1.07 billion,” more than double the previous quarter.

Edwards is known for his philanthropy. He won the 2014 International Horatio Alger Award, and he also holds an honorary degree from the University of Toronto (acceptance speech here).

Edwards reportedly provided, altogether, $436,227 to BC Premier Christy Clark’s re-election campaign through donations from businesses in which he is involved, and helped organize a “$1-million private fundraiser in Calgary” for her. A few months earlier, Clark had praised Edwards—and herself—for having “some pretty ambitious targets” for the mining sector which she declared “we’ve done . . . with the highest standard of sustainable mining in the world.” Prime Minister Stephen Harper reportedly “spoke several times with Mr. Edwards as he formulated his policy [for new rules for foreign investment in the oil sands].”

What’s next? While we’re holding our collective breath, awaiting the official August 15th report on the disaster, Imperial Metals is facing the likelihood that its $15-million insurance coverage “is likely to fall short of the cleanup cost” at Mount Polley by up to $200 million. Additionally, a class-action lawsuit is now being filed on behalf of investors.

And then there’s this press report: “The bad news is that years of hard work can be undone by a pipeline rupture or Neil Young.” Well, yes, which is why major effort and vigilance should be placed on preventing pipeline ruptures, tailings dam breaches and the proliferation of toxic chemical cesspools all around the planet. Neil Young’s messages don’t exactly come out of a vacuum, after all.

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