Skip to main content

A aerial view shows the debris going into Quesnel Lake caused by a tailings pond breach near the town of Likely, B.C. Tuesday, August, 5, 2014.

The B.C. government says an independent investigation into the Mount Polley spill is needed, and the province is indicating there could also be new inspections at other mines.

The tailings pond at the Mount Polley copper and gold mine breached on Aug. 4, sending millions of cubic metres of waste into central B.C. waterways. The spill prompted days of water-use bans for hundreds of people, and the province has said there could be adverse effects on marine life.

In a statement Sunday, the Ministry of Environment said the province has determined that an independent review into the failure of the tailings pond is necessary. It said the communities in the affected areas, First Nations, industry and other British Columbians "deserve to know in a clear and timely way what happened and what can be done to ensure such incidents never happen again."

A formal news conference is expected this week, though the province would not say exactly when it would be held or release further details on the matter. It did not explain how the independent investigation would fit with government reviews of the Mount Polley breach that have already begun.

Bill Bennett, the Minister of Energy and Mines, said last week there have to be areas for improvement. He also said at the time that an announcement on next steps could come as early as Monday, and that in addition to the breach it would touch on other tailings ponds in the province.

Environment Minister Mary Polak, during a weekend conference call, was asked about inspections at other tailings ponds and said independent investigation was warranted. Ms. Polak said a time and date for an announcement had not been finalized.

William Sellars, a councillor with the Williams Lake Indian Band, which is near the Mount Polley mine, said Sunday he had not heard from the province about its planned next steps. However, he said Ms. Polak and other provincial representatives were scheduled to meet with community members Monday to answer questions about the spill.

Ms. Polak, during the conference call, said sediment samples from Hazeltine Creek and near Raft Creek in Quesnel Lake posed no human health risk, but could harm wildlife.

Mr. Sellars said there is no doubt the spill will have some impact, and that the survival of juvenile fish is of particular concern.

He said fear about contaminated fish has spread, to the point that he was one of only a few band members to fish for sockeye Saturday.

The Mining Association of B.C. did not return messages seeking comment Sunday. The Mining Association of Canada declined to comment.

The mines ministry has said there are 98 tailings ponds at 60 closed and operating metal and coal mines in the province.

Under the Health, Safety and Reclamation Code for Mines in B.C., companies must submit inspection reports from independent engineers to the chief inspector of mines every year. On top of this, the mines ministry conducts its own geotechnical inspections at a frequency determined by the Canadian Dam Association's dam safety guidelines – typically once a year.

Since the Mount Polley mine received its permit in 1995, the ministry says it conducted one inspection every year until 2001, and one each in 2006, 2008 and 2013. It conducted two each in 2005, 2007 and 2012. (The mine was closed from 2001 to 2005.) The ministry said the last inspection, in September, 2013, resulted in no orders related to the tailings pond.

The province has refused to release copies of its Mount Polley inspection reports, citing the ongoing reviews into the breach.

The Mount Polley mine is owned by Imperial Metals Corp. Mount Polley is not the only project in B.C. in which Imperial Metals is involved. Its Red Chris mine, in northwest B.C., is nearing the end of construction. The Ruddock Creek project, in southeastern B.C., is in the preapplication phase of the environmental assessment process.

Imperial Metals shares fell sharply the day after the spill, plunging more than 40 per cent.