The province of British Columbia has announced that a ban on water use near the Mount Polley mine spill has been further rescinded and that fish appear to have escaped major harm – but any sense of normalcy has been offset by fear the spill could ultimately cost hundreds of area residents their jobs.
On Tuesday, a ban that at one time left up to 300 people without water to drink, bathe in or give to pets and livestock was further rescinded. Acting on positive findings in additional water tests, Interior Health said the do-not-drink order now only remains in effect for the immediate "impact zone" of the spill, where few people live.
Trevor Corneil, a medical health officer with Interior Health, said there is no reason to believe water outside the impact zone was exposed to unsafe levels of contaminants.
Environment Minister Mary Polak said "almost all" contaminants tested in water samples from Polley Lake meet federal and provincial drinking water guidelines, with the exceptions of pH and aluminum, which "slightly exceed" them.
"[They] were very close to baseline levels taken by ministry staff since the 1980s," Ms. Polak said. "These really are to be expected, as aluminum is naturally elevated in this area of B.C."
Dr. Corneil also deemed all fish outside of the impact zone safe for human consumption. This includes fish in Quesnel Lake, Quesnel River and the Fraser River. The Ministry of Environment and the First Nations Health Authority are developing plans for long-term testing "as we all recognize there is the potential for longer-term impacts of certain contaminants on fish," Dr. Corneil said.
It remains unknown when the Mount Polley mine could reopen.
Analysts have said costs for the spill cleanup could range anywhere from $50-million to $500-million and that Imperial Metals Corporation – which owns Mount Polley – could sell royalties or a stake in Red Chris, another B.C. mine that is nearing the end of construction.
Paul French, president of United Steelworkers Local 1-425, which had about 300 members working at the Mount Polley mine, said 42 employees have been given layoff notices. The rest continue to work on cleanup and mitigation. He called the mine one of the Williams Lake area's economic drivers.
"I don't think people have any idea how important this mine is to the economy," he said in an interview Tuesday, adding that the facility likely creates hundreds of additional spinoff jobs for contractors and suppliers.
Mr. French said any outdoor construction work would have to start relatively soon. "It may take some time, because they're going to investigate why the dam collapsed.
But if tests come back positive, the biggest drawback is going to be winter. You're not going to do anything when it's 30 below."
Al Richmond, chair of the Cariboo Regional District, said if the mine could not reopen the financial impact would be "significant."
He said he's heard from employees who fear they'll soon be out of work.
"The employees in the meetings we've attended in [the town of] Likely, that's paramount in their minds, some of whom are husband-and-wife teams who both work there. Their entire income is based on that employment," he said in an interview. Mr. Richmond said the spill's impact has already been felt in the tourism sector, as campsites that would normally be full sit largely unused.
Bev Sellars, chief of the Soda Creek Indian Band, has said the mine is of little importance to her First Nation financially. She has said the band has been shut out of the jobs and its communities, for the most part, are very poor.
With a report from Reuters