October 2014

Collaborative response

B.C. government and First Nations team up to tackle the aftermath of the Mt. Polley tailings breach

By Kelsey Rolfe

When the tailings pond dam ruptured at Imperial Metals’ Mount Polley mine on August 4, it sent 10 million cubic metres of water, 13.8 million cubic metres of tailings slurry and 0.6 million cubic metres of construction waste into Hazeltine Creek, an amount the company said in September was 78 per cent higher than original estimates.

To address the spill, the government of B.C. announced in August it would partner with two local First Nations’ bands affected by the tailings breach and ordered an independent investigation to determine what caused the breach.

The partnership between the provincial government and the Williams Lake and Soda Creek Indian Bands, outlined in a letter of understanding, consists of a principals table and a senior officials committee. The committee, made up of representatives from the Ministries of Environment, Aboriginal Relations and Reconciliation, and Energy and Mines, as well as delegates from the First Nations groups, will oversee cleanup and remediation planning, and assess funding requirements as well as the future of the mine. The ultimate ­decision-­making authority will remain with the province.

The committee will report back to the principals table, a group that includes the three ministers and the two First Nations chiefs. There is no deadline for the report as of yet. The letter of understanding also promises $200,000 to each band in the partnership for current and future costs incurred by the breach.

The independent investigation is being conducted by a panel of four: Norbert Morgenstern, an Alberta expert in geotechnical engineering; Steven Vick, a Colorado geotechnical engineer; Dirk Van Zyl, a University of British Columbia professor; and Jim Kuipers, a Montana-based mining engineer who will act as a First Nations liaison. The panel has the power to compel evidence and will give its report with recommendations to the province by January 31, 2015.

“We tried to find people who had experience in these types of investigations, who had the knowledge and expertise to be able to undertake the work that needs to be done,” said John Rustad, the minister of aboriginal relations and reconciliation. “Our hope is to get to the bottom of what happened and how it happened so that we can, as a province, make sure that this sort of thing never happens again.”

In the letter of understanding, the province promises a “dialogue” on existing mining sector laws and regulations.

Ann Louie, chief of the Williams Lake band, said she wants to see more than talk come out of the partnership and investigation. “We need stricter rules,” she said. “Right now the [provincial] government wants to push for 30 new mines. Just because there’s potential doesn’t mean that it should be pushed through. The rules have to be stringent, because we don’t want any more disasters like this.”

Louie said she hopes to see bonds increased to between $15 million and $100 million for companies looking to open a new mine. “Right now, like with Mount Polley’s disaster, the bond that was there is next to nothing compared to what it’s going to cost to deal with this situation,” she said. Louie also called on the provincial government to take the recommendations of First Nations members of the partnership seriously: “I think it’s critical for the British Columbia government to listen now, because they have not listened in the past.”

Imperial Metals is not involved in the partnership, but Steve Robertson, the company’s vice-president of corporate affairs, said Imperial has escalated its monthly meeting with the Williams Lake and Soda Creek bands to convene almost weekly so that the three parties have a “good, full understanding about what each other is doing.” He also said the company is conducting its own cleanup and constructing a dyke inside the tailings impoundment.

Robertson said Imperial Metals is not looking to reopen Mount Polley until the company has completed its three-part initial response plan, helped to rehabilitate Hazeltine Creek and repaired the tailings pond.

He said he sympathized with community members and First Nations who found the footage of the spill disturbing but added that the tailings pond has non acid-generating tailings, so the “level of deleterious elements in the tailings is very low.”

“It’s a shocking experience for everybody to have something like this happen, and it will take some time for these wounds to heal,” he said. “One of the best ways to ensure that we move beyond this though is to have a continual and open dialogue with the community members.”

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