Dam breach tarnishes miners' reputation
B.C. government, First Nations and mining leaders seek answers in wake of Mount Polley incident; Alaskans eye upstream projects
Last updated 8/31/2014 at Noon
Results from water sampling show that the immediate environmental impacts of an estimated 14.5 million cubic meters of tailings and water released from a facility at Imperial Metals Corp.'s Mount Polley Mine in central British Columbia are isolated primarily to the area immediately below the breached dam. But the extent of the spill's longer term damage to the reputation of the mining sector in B.C. and beyond rests largely on the response of industry and regulators.
Leading the industry in addressing the dam failure, the Association for Mineral Exploration British Columbia described the Mount Polley incident as a "human dilemma" that highlights the need of all metal users to come together to ensure a similar incident doesn't occur again.
"Given that everyone uses and benefits from the metals and minerals explored for and produced by the industry, we must all take a certain amount of responsibility and take time to consider constructive and thoughtful input to help make things better in the future," said AME BC Chair David McLelland. "This particular incident is not solely a government-, First Nation-, environmentalist-, industry- or company-centric problem. This is a shared human dilemma that I know we can improve if we work together and consider all the scientific data, causal factors, remediation strategies and options."
The collaboration urged in McLelland's remarks was first realized when the Soda Creek Indian Band (Xats'ull First Nation) and Williams Lake Indian Band agreed to partner with the provincial government to oversee the response to the tailings spill.
"Not only does this agreement commit our respective governments to joint oversight and decision-making in regards to all aspects of response to the Mount Polley mine disaster, it also allows First Nations and the provincial government to begin a necessary conversation about the adequacy of existing laws, regulations and policy in regards to the overall mining sector in British Columbia," explained Soda Creek Indian Band Chief Bev Sellars.
The spirit of cooperation was not shared by all. Salmon Beyond Borders, a group concerned about the effects mining in northwestern British Columbia may have on the salmon-bearing streams in Southeast Alaska, was quick to use the Mount Polley incident to further its objective.
"We urge that Canada issue no new mine permits in the trans-boundary river region until there is a full investigation of this accident and guarantees that similar accidents won't occur at larger mines proposed in the Unuk, Stikine and Taku watersheds," said Brian Lynch, a spokesman for Salmon Beyond Borders.
Seabridge Gold's Kerr-Sulphurets-Mitchell (KSM) copper-gold project is at the top of the conservation group's watch list. Tulsequah Chief (Chieftain Metals), Red Chris (Imperial Metals), Schaft Creek (Copper Fox Metals-Teck Resources) and Galore Creek (Novagold-Teck) are other northwestern B.C. mine development or advanced exploration projects that the Alaska-based group is watching.
Mining leaders are cautioning against knee-jerk reactions to the dam failure.
"While the environmental concerns need to be properly addressed, now is certainly not the time for anyone to speculate recklessly or seek an opportunity to suggest immediate changes to public policy based on misinformation, incomplete data or fears. This is a time for stewardship and strong leadership," urged AME BC President and CEO Gavin Dirom.
Stabilizing the site
For its part, Imperial Metals has kept a steady hand on the rudder in the wake of the tailings dam failure - both accepting its responsibility and orchestrating a quick response to the event.
A day after the dam failure, Imperial President Brian Kynoch visited the Cariboo region of British Columbia where Mt. Polley is located, answering tough questions from local residents.
"Imperial accepts that it is our responsibility to put this right," Kynoch said during his company's first meeting with the press Aug. 6.
"We are focused on mitigating immediate effects and understanding the cause of the breach," the company said in an Aug. 7 update. "Our priorities continue to be human and environmental safety."
The first order of business is to stabilize the site, stem any further effects by lowering the water levels in nearby Polley Lake and building a temporary dike that spans the breached area of the tailings facility.
Originating slightly up Hazeltine Creek from the tailings dam, water from the breach back-flowed into Polley Lake and debris blocked the outflow causing the lake to rise roughly 1.5 meters (five feet) above its natural level. To prevent a second large discharge down Hazeltine, Imperial Metals is pumping water down the creek at a rate of 8,000 gallons per minute. Water is also being pumped into two open pits at the Mt. Polley Mine.
Roughly 300 mine employees are reported to be working on the dike that arcs into the tailings facility across the gap in the dam. The temporary dam, which will be built with 2 million tons of rock, is expected to be completed by mid-September.
During a regularly scheduled second-quarter update, Kynoch said both the temporary plug in the dam and lowering the water level in Polley Lake are necessary to ensure the safety of inspectors and others that need access to the area below the tailings facility to assess the damage and discover the cause of the breach.
It is assumed that a thorough investigation into the cause of the breach and recommendations on improving the dam will need to be completed before permanent repairs are made.
B.C., First Nations investigate
The B.C. government, which is also shouldering its share of accountability for the incident, has appointed an independent panel of three engineers to investigate the dam breach.
"We have a responsibility, as the jurisdiction where this failure took place, to find out exactly why it happened, ensure it never happens again and take a leadership role internationally in learning from this serious incident," Minister of Energy and Mines Bill Bennett said.
In the aftermath of the Mount Polley breach, the B.C. government forged a partnership with the Soda Creek Indian Band (Xats'ull First Nation) and Williams Lake Indian Band to oversee the response to the tailings spill.
"Not only does this agreement commit our respective governments to joint oversight and decision-making in regards to all aspects of response to the Mount Polley mine disaster, it also allows First Nations and the provincial government to begin a necessary conversation about the adequacy of existing laws, regulations and policy in regards to the overall mining sector in British Columbia," said Soda Creek's Sellars.
"The provincial government bears the responsibility to effectively collaborate with First Nations on a government-to-government basis on meaningful reforms to build confidence with all our communities that mineral exploration and mining is a safe industry. At this point that confidence still needs to be earned," added Williams Lake Indian Band Chief Ann Louie.
As a first step in gaining that confidence, the B. C. government, in cooperation with the two area First Nations bands, ordered an investigation aimed at discovering the cause of the mine's dam failure and ensuring such a calamity is never repeated in the province.
A panel of engineers - Norbert Morgenstern, an award-winning authority in field of geotechnical engineering; Steven Vick, a geotechnical engineer from Colorado; and Dirk Van Zyl, professor, University of British Columbia Normal B. Keevil Institute of Mining Engineering - has been charged with investigating geotechnical standards, design of the dam, maintenance, regulations, inspections regimes and other matters that the engineers deem pertinent to the Aug. 4 failure.
"The failure of the tailings facility at Mount Polley was a dark day for the mining industry not only here in British Columbia, but worldwide," said Van Zyl. "It's extremely important for us to understand how this breach happened and why, so that we can move forward with the best possible practices in ongoing and future mining operations."
The Soda Creek and Williams Lake bands will have a liaison on the panel.
Once the panel determines the cause of the dam failure, it will make recommendations on how to prevent such a catastrophe in the future. A report outlining the findings and recommendations will be turned over to the provincial government and Soda Creek and Williams Lake bands by the end of January.
Based on the findings, new guidelines for tailings dam management are expected.
"There is no doubt in anyone's minds that this is the worst mining disaster to ever occur in this province," said Sellars. "We look forward to receiving the results of the investigation and taking action to ensure an accident like this this never happens again."
Province-wide dam inspections
Beyond the investigation of Mount Polley, the B.C. chief inspector of mines has ordered mine owners to have independent dam inspections conducted at all 98 tailings impoundments in the province by Dec. 1. This order accelerates the routine annual inspections due on Mar. 15 and requires an added level of scrutiny by an independent professional engineer from a firm not associated with the tailings facility.
Tailings dams in B.C. are ranked by the potential impact to people, environment, cultural values and infrastructure should they fail. Mines with tailings facilities deemed to be high-risk are also ordered to have emergency response plans reviewed by independent experts.
"The independent engineering investigation and third-party reviews of dam safety inspections for every permitted tailings facility in the province will get the answers necessary to provide public confidence following this serious incident," said B.C. Minister of Mines Bennett.
Of the dams up for extraordinary inspections, 31 are at active operations, 66 are either closed permanently or are on care and maintenance. The other, located at Imperial's Red Chris project, is listed as under construction.
The Mount Polley investigation and province-wide dam inspections are being watched closely by mining leaders in neighboring Alaska.
"I'm relieved water-quality tests performed below the Mount Polley dam have shown comparable levels to the water quality before the breach. However, we still remain gravely concerned about the incident and are paying close attention to learn exactly what went wrong and how the breach occurred. We are eager to employ any lessons learned at our projects in Alaska to ensure our mines are the safest and most environmentally responsible operations in the world," said Alaska Miners Association Executive Director Deantha Crockett.
Alaska regulators and legislators are also keeping close tabs on Red Chris and Kerr-Sulphurets-Mitchell, two B. C. projects located near rivers that flow through the Southeast Alaska panhandle.
U.S. senators Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, and Mark Begich, D-Alaska, have urged U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry to work with his Canadian counterpart to consider the implementation of a panel review of KSM.
"A panel review would help guard against a similar breach of wastewater and tailings, which in the case of the KSM mine could be released into the Unuk River, just 19 miles (30 kilometers) north of the Alaskan border," explained Murkowski.
Restart, cost unclear
It is currently unclear how long it will take Imperial Metals to resume operations at Mount Polley.
"The tailings dam breach at the Mount Polley mine has resulted in the loss of production from the mine for an indeterminate period of time. In addition, the company will incur costs for remediation and repair," Imperial Metals reported Aug. 14 in its quarterly financial update.
Like the timeline, the costs associated with the clean-up and repairs are not yet clear.
"Though it is not possible to quantify the exact costs of remediation, we have two key factors that should help us with the remediation: One, the water quality in the impoundment was good, virtually drinking water quality; and two, the solids are non-acid-generating and contain very low levels of most metal," Kynoch informed investors on Aug. 18.
Several analysts, however, have projected the total costs to range between C$50 million and C$200 million.
To help pay for the clean-up and repairs during this period of reduced cash flow, Imperial Metals arranged a US$100 million financing. In addition to rehabilitation efforts at Mt. Polley, the money raised will help the company finish up construction at Red Chris, a mine that the company is developing to the northwest in the province
"With our announced financing, we are confident we have sufficient funds to complete Red Chris and get it going," said Kynoch.
Before the dam breach at Mount Polley, the Red Chris copper-gold property near Dease Lake in northwestern B. C. was scheduled to begin commissioning in September.
Based on reserves of more than 300 million metric tons of ore grading 0.36 percent copper and 0.27 grams per metric ton gold, a mine at Red Chris is projected to produce 2.1 billion pounds of copper and 1.32 million ounces of gold over an initial 28-year mine-life.
In a mid-July update, Imperial said on-site construction at Red Chris was nearly complete, with the tailings and reclaim water systems reported to be 93 percent complete at the time.
The company anticipated having electricity to the mine development project in September.
On Aug. 13, BC Hydro announced that the 287-kilovolt Northwest Transmission Line is energized to Bob Quinn Lake, bringing power closer to Red Chris, the anticipated first commercial customer for the 344-kilometer-long power line. Imperial is finishing up a 93-kilometer extension from Bob Quinn to a substation at Tatogga, where an already completed power line from Red Chris will plug in.
"We continue to push to complete this line in September," Kynoch said on Aug. 18.
Once electricity is delivered to Red Chris, Imperial will be ready to commission the mill.
The company has already begun pre-commissioning activities for the crusher and conveyors and ore grade material from the project's East zone is being stockpiled for operations.
Tahltan discuss Red Chris
Red Chris may be ready to ramp up to production when the mill plugs into the northernmost extension of B.C.'s electrical grid, but start-up will need to wait until the local Tahltan First Nations is comfortable that an incident similar to Mount Polley will not be repeated in its traditional territory.
Following the tailings dam failure at Mount Polley, Klabona Keepers, a Tahltan conservationist group, has blockaded the roads leading to the Red Chris project. By stopping the overland supply of fuel, personnel and equipment, the group made up of Tahltan elders and families is attempting to impede progress until its concerns are met.
While the Tahltan Central Council does not endorse the blockade, the First Nation's governing body understands the group's anxieties.
"We have reached out to the Klabona Keepers and are keen to discuss their intentions behind the blockade," said Tahltan Central Council President Chad Day said in a statement. "We share their concerns in protecting the Tahltan environment, culture and our local communities into the future. We are and will continue to do everything in our power to make sure the Tahltan Nation avoids serious environmental issues at the Red Chris Mine."
Tahltan Central Council organized a series of three community meetings to discuss the pending Red Chris Mine in the wake of the Mount Polley disaster.
These gatherings started with an elders meeting followed by a Tahltan-only meeting on Aug. 22. Representatives from Imperial Metals and B.C. government were then invited to join the Tahltan meetings on Aug. 23.
By the end of the gatherings, an agreement had been reached between the Tahltan Central Council and Imperial Metals. At the crux of this pact, is a third-party review of the Red Chris tailings facility. An engineering firm chosen by the First Nations group will appraise whether world-class standards have and will be used in the design, engineering, construction and operation of the tailings impoundment.
If any issues are uncovered, Imperial will need to address those before firing up operations at Red Chris.
The engineering review is scheduled to be completed by Sept. 24. If the Tahltan people are satisfied with the findings, Imperial Metals could get the green light for Red Chris Mine shortly after power is delivered to site.