Workers at a B.C. mine that spilled millions of cubic metres of waste into nearby waterways had reported concerns about the facility’s tailings pond in the past, the union that represents them says.
Dean Colville, first vice-president of United Steelworkers Local 1-425, said on Friday that workers had shared their concern with the company in the months before the spill at the Mount Polley gold and copper mine.
“Having 300 workers there, you hear concerns from workers, saying, ‘The water’s too high, it might breach,’” Mr. Colville said in an interview. “Not everybody’s saying it, but you get guys coming in who are saying, ‘It’s looking dangerous.’”
Mr. Colville said he did not know whether the complaints stopped with supervisors or went further. He said workers had advised the union they expressed their worries to the company.
“I do know, the last few months, people have been saying there’s an issue,” he said, although he added no concerns were raised immediately before the breach.
A spokeswoman for Imperial Metals Corp., which owns the Mount Polley mine, said the management team was busy with technical and stakeholder calls on Friday. The company did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Environment Minister Mary Polak said in a conference call she was not aware of workers formally raising concerns about the tailings pond before it breached. However, she advised anyone with information about the spill to speak with the Conservation Officer Service, which is doing the investigation.
“We are very concerned with what we’re hearing anecdotally from the community, those who have been employees, former employees, First Nations. We’re asking them please, to come forward, to talk to our inspectors,” she said.
The province on Friday announced that water samples from five locations in the Quesnel River met provincial and federal drinking water guidelines for a second straight day. As a result, all do-not-use water restrictions were lifted on part of the Quesnel River, including for the town of Likely.
A do-not-use order remained in effect for areas including Polley Lake, Hazeltine Creek, Cariboo Creek and all parts of Quesnel Lake.
The province said the flow out of the breach has decreased, but not stopped. Imperial Metals is constructing a berm to stop the flow, but it will take about three weeks.
The province has been accused of a lack of oversight at the mine, but it said the mine has had nine geotechnical inspections since it reopened in March, 2005.
The company had sought a permit amendment to increase the amount of treated effluent discharged from the tailings pond on July 11, which the province was considering at the time of the spill. When asked if the province needed to respond to such requests more quickly, Ms. Polak said it would not have prevented what occurred.
Standard and Poor’s financial services company announced on Friday that it had lowered its ratings on Imperial Metals and that the company’s outlook was negative. It said the Mount Polley mine accounts for most of the company’s production and cash flow generation, and that based on the scope of the breach, it believes that cash flow will be materially affected.
Imperial Metals shares fell sharply more than 40 per cent the day after the spill.
The B.C. Mining Association earlier this week told The Globe and Mail the spill could lead to changes for the entire industry. The Mining Association of Canada reiterated that message on Friday, writing in a statement that it would review the incident to assess what could be learned and implemented to prevent recurrences.
Mr. Colville said most employees are working on cleanup and mitigation, but about 30 have been told to seek employment insurance.
He said much about the spill is unknown, including when the mine might reopen. He said some workers are concerned it will close for good.
Members of the Tahltan Nation on Friday said they plan to blockade Imperial Metals’ Red Chris mine in response to the Mount Polley spill.