Helicopter view of dam cut the day of the breach shows accumulation of tailings that remains

What we know about the mine spill

Water and sediment tests at Mount Polley have offered some comfort to locals, after typical disaster porn of early media reports

Today I’ll attempt to cut through the speculation and fear-mongering that have swirled around the Mount Polley mine dam breach and tell you what’s really known.

As Black Press and our local publication the Williams Lake Tribune reported before and after the incident, the mine reopened in 2005 after a four-year shutdown and was expanding its operation, including the tailings pond. Rising metal prices helped put 380 unionized employees plus management back to work. Most are now working on rebuilding the tailings dam and cleaning up the spill site.

Imperial Metals applied earlier this summer for an increase in water discharge, and was waiting for B.C. government approval at the time of the Aug. 4 dam breach. This was to be the second amendment to a water release permit issued when the mine started up in 1997. It has had a surplus of water due to rain and snow accumulation since it opened (under an NDP government, for those who want to turn everything into a political corruption story).

The reason water release has been allowed is that in the absence of acid-producing rock, metal contamination of water is minimized. Imperial Metals’ routine tests with rainbow trout in undiluted tailings pond water have now been confirmed by environment ministry results, and water and fish from all but the immediate spill area have been cleared for human consumption.

For an example of acid mine drainage, look up the Britannia Mine Museum, now a reclaimed national historic site with a water treatment plant built to function for hundreds of years. Before that, acid-produced toxic metal pollution drained from the abandoned mine into Howe Sound for decades.

Early tests at Mount Polley indicate that this sort of long-term water remediation may not be required. The initial pulse of suspended sediment didn’t last long enough to affect fish in most of Quesnel Lake, much less the Fraser River system. Sediment tests show elevated iron and copper, with “leachability” results to come. Containment and removal will have to be undertaken.

On May 24 of this year, Mount Polley received the first high water warning in its history. This was not a “breach,” contrary to some reports. The latest water permit application and work to raise the dam took place after that.

It’s not difficult to deduce from aerial photos what was happening as mine management found ways to extend operation, including an underground phase. The pond was filling up with pulverized rock, reducing its capacity to hold water. Most of the accumulation is still there for all to see, as is the cross-section of the dam so abruptly exposed in the wee hours of Aug. 4.

It may be months before inspectors and geotechnical engineers can determine the cause of the breach, which occurred with the water level 2.5 metres below the top of the dam, well within permit specifications. Either the design of the earthworks was not adequate, or it was not adequately followed.

TV crews have packed up and left, after sucking out the initial drama and retailing every sensational claim they could find. Tourism operators are pleading with people not to turn their backs on the region after that influx of visitors.

Professional environmentalists are now exploiting Mount Polley as part of their campaign to de-industrialize B.C. A key propaganda tool is a single picture of a salmon with skin removed from part of its dorsal region.

No such fish has been produced, and a single rainbow trout collected the day of the spill is the only confirmed aquatic casualty.

Tom Fletcher is legislature reporter and columnist for Black Press. Twitter: @tomfletcherbc

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Ivan Scott. (Aaron Hinks photo)
Surrey mayor enters word war with speakers, councillor

McCallum calls brief recess after asking two speakers to leave chambers

Montreal-based writer Michael Foy grew up in the Newton area of Surrey. (submitted photo)
Surrey-raised writer Foy really loves to set his short stories in the city

His latest is published in ‘Canadian Shorts II’ collection

Officers with the Lower Mainland Emergency Response Team were at a White Rock home Tuesday (Oct. 20) to assist Vancouver Police Department with execution of a search warrant. (Contributed photo)
ERT response to White Rock home connected to homicide: police

Search underway in the 15800-block of Prospect Crescent

The site of the former Rona store in Newton could be home to a park and civic amenities, in the 6900-block of King George Boulevard. (Photo: Google Street View)
Surrey buying 16 properties in Newton for parkland, civic amenities

Mayor Doug McCallum says project will be ‘fast-tracked’

Bernard Trest and his son Max, 10, are concerned about B.C.’s plan for students in the classroom. He was one of two fathers who filed a court application in August to prevent schools from reopening if stricter COVID-19 protections weren’t in place. That application was dismissed last week. (Contributed photo)
White Rock dad pledges to appeal quashed call for mandatory masks, distancing in schools

Bernard Trest and Gary Shuster challenged health, education ministries’ return-to-school plan

B.C. NDP Leader John Horgan arrives at Luxton Hall to cast their votes in advance polls for the provincial election in Langford, B.C., Monday, Oct. 19, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chad Hipolito
Pandemic election prompts voter suppression claims by B.C. Liberals

‘These emergencies require in us a maturity that has been lacking in politics for so long’

UBC geoscientists discovered the wreckage of a decades-old crash during an expedition on a mountain near Harrison Lake. (Submitted photo)
Wreckage of possibly decades-old airplane crash discovered on mountain near Harrison Lake

A team of UBC geoscientists discovered the twisted metal embedded in a glacier

The official search to locate Jordan Naterer was suspended Saturday Oct. 17. Photo courtesy of VPD.
‘I am not leaving without my son,’ says mother of missing Manning Park hiker

Family and friends continue to search for Jordan Naterer, after official efforts suspended

Is it time to start thinking about greener ways to package cannabis?

Packaging suppliers are still figuring eco-friendly and affordable packaging options that fit the mandates of Cannabis Regulations

A bear similar to this black bear is believed responsible for killing a llama in Saanich on Oct. 19. (Black Press Media file photo)
Bear kills llama on Vancouver Island, prompting concerns over livestock

Officers could not track the bear they feel may not fear humans

Join Black Press Media and Do Some Good

Pay it Forward program supports local businesses in their community giving

RCMP crest. (Black Press Media files)
RCMP cleared in fatal shooting of armed Lytton man in distress, police watchdog finds

IIO spoke to seven civillian witnesses and 11 police officers in coming to its decision

A 34-year-old man was treated for a gunshot wound in Williams Lake Monday, Oct 19, 2020. (Angie Mindus photo - Williams Lake Tribune)
Williams Lake man treated for gunshot wound after accidental shooting: RCMP

Police are reminding residents to ensure firearms are not loaded when handling them

A injection kit is seen inside the newly opened Fraser Health supervised consumption site is pictured in Surrey, B.C., Tuesday, June 6, 2017. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward
B.C. records 127 fatal overdoses in September, roughly 4 each day

Vancouver, Surrey and Victoria continued to see the highest numbers of overdoses

Most Read