Shortly after three in the morning on August 4th the residents of Likely, B.C. were awakened by a sound like massive jet engines tearing through the night. The earth-filled dam holding back nearly five million cubic metres of toxic waste in the Mount Polley tailings pond had burst, sending contaminated sludge coursing through local waterways. Two months later, their future remains uncertain.
Shortly after three in the morning on Aug. 4 the residents of Likely, B.C., were awakened by a sound like massive jet engines tearing through the night. The earth-filled dam holding back nearly five million cubic metres of waste in the Mount Polley tailings pond had burst, sending contaminated sludge coursing through local waterways. Two months later, their future remains uncertain.
The water in Quesnel Lake, from which most residents draw their drinking water, is now considered by most to be toxic, following the unprecedented spill at Imperial Metals’ Mount Polley copper and gold mine in early August.
An Imperial Metals-led cleanup and pollution mitigation plan is currently being implemented, but Jacinda Mack, former natural resources manager for the Xat’sull (Soda Creek) First Nation, remains unconvinced the water is suitable to drink, or a viable habitat for salmon.
“That’s our children’s inheritance,” Mack said. “We have to make sure this disaster gets cleaned before anything else happens.”
Making Imperial Metals accountable for the damage is a top priority for Mack, now a mining communications liaison with the northern Secwepmc First Nation (known by non-natives as the Shuswap).
“This is the worst-case scenario for us as a nation,” she said. “Water is our number one concern. People are still terrified. Could you imagine going two months without water?”
Water from Quesnel Lake was declared safe for human consumption on Aug. 9, but not everyone in the community accepts that determination.
Lawna Kuester is one of many Likely residents who want the pristine lake restored to pre-spill purity as soon as possible. Like many of her neighbours, she has lost trust in the B.C. government and Imperial Metals.
“When the water was tested, they only took samples from the surface,” said Kuester, who lives near Cedar Point just north of Likely. “All of our water intake is below the surface. Until they actually clean the lakes and creek bed we’re not drinking this stuff.”
Imperial Metals’ tailings containment facility stored 25 million cubic metres of mining waste, a mixture of chemicals, heavy metals, water, and rock turned to dust.
The massive amount of effluent destroyed the nearly 10-kilometre long Hazeltine Creek, which connects Polley Lake to Quesnel Lake in the heart of Secwepmc territory, causing it to expand from a width of four feet to 150 feet overnight.
Quesnel Lake’s name in Secwepemctsín, the language of the Sepwepmc, means “where our salmon are born,” as relayed by Secwepmc elder Jean William, keynote speaker for a webinar held last month called Indigenous Resistance to the Mount Polley Mining Disaster.
It took more than a week for the unprecedented tailings pond effluence to clear the drainage of Quesnel Lake.
The Quesnel River salmon run is the second largest of its kind and only outdone by the Adams River run in southern Secwepmc territory near Chase, B.C., which begins this weekend.
Clean water is needed for the survival of wild salmon in the province and the absence of adequate aquatic testing regulations is baffling to Ramsey Hart, Mining Watch Canada’s national program coordinator, who has travelled to Likely to determine the severity of the tailings pond breach.
His main area of concern is reagents, which are used to separate precious ore from rock. “We know the reagents are in the spill, but we’re not sure on the total volume released,” Hart said. “I speculate that the blue film seen by so many on Quesnel Lake was, in fact, reagents. There’s nothing to corroborate this because the testing simply isn’t being done.”
The mining corporation has confirmed its usage of three major reagents: potassium amyl xanthate, sodium hydrosulphide (“nash”) and sodium diethyl dithiophosphate, among others.
The First Nations Health Authority confirmed it has taken samples of the blue film, but is unable to test the samples as there is no lab equipped to test the samples. It has no plan to test the salmon collected for reagents.
Hart says Imperial Metals should not be using chemicals that can’t be tested for. He says an environmental equivalent to the Material Safety Data Sheets, which regulate the safe use of chemicals in relation to humans, is needed in Canada.
“The MSDS is well and good,” Hart said. “But having a defined response for the spill of chemicals into waterways or on land would be an excellent first step to prepare for the potential of a future spill like the one we have here.”
Hart points to a clear reason no substantial cleanup has begun in either the lakes or the creek.
“They simply have no idea how to clean it up,” Hart said. “An event of this magnitude has never happened before and there is virtually no plan in place to eliminate the threats created to people or the environment.”
Several consultants have been hired by Imperial Metals to restore Polley Lake, Hazeltine Creek and Quesnel Lake, but the scope of what is needed has yet to be determined.
The prospect of returning the water to pre-spill purity is a daunting task.
“What has to happen now is, essentially, mining in reverse, Without the economic motivation I don’t see that happening any time soon.”
Imperial Metals did not respond to Ricochet’s requests for comment on this story.