Industry and government officials across the country are reviewing dam design, maintenance and oversight in the wake of a tailings dam breach at Mount Polley mine in B.C., says the head of the Mining Association of Canada (MAC).
"No one in the industry, after this incident, didn't wake up in the morning and go, 'I better go check' – even though they had reams of information and assurances that everything was safe," MAC president Pierre Gratton said Thursday following an address to the Vancouver Board of Trade. "I think every one of them wanted to go out and get that reassurance again."
On Aug. 4, a tailings dam at the Mount Polley mine – operated by Vancouver-based Imperial Metals – gave way, sending a torrent of mud and debris into neighbouring waterways and resulting in drinking-water bans in affected areas. Most of those advisories have been lifted, but a do-not-use order remains in effect for the "impact zone," which includes Hazeltine Creek, Polley Lake and part of Quesnel Lake.
The cause of the breach is unknown and an independent investigation is under way.
The incident rattled the mining sector and raised questions about oversight and regulation of tailings dams in British Columbia and elsewhere in the country. Following the Mount Polley breach, the B.C. government moved the deadline for companies to file annual inspection reports for tailings dams from March 31, 2015, to December 1, 2014, and also ordered those inspections to be independently reviewed.
While more than 200 mines operate safely every day across Canada, the Mount Polley failure cannot be tolerated, Mr. Gratton said.
"It is unacceptable to the Williams Lake and Soda Creek bands, to the people of Likely, to British Columbians," he said. "And it is unacceptable to the mining industry."
The Canadian mining sector, with MAC at the helm, has spent much of the past two decades working on programs, including the Toward Sustainable Mining (TSM) initiative, designed to improve practices in areas including energy use and community relations and to prevent tailings-dam failures.
Imperial Metals was in the first year of a three-year TSM certification process under the program, which was launched in 2004 after several high-profile tailings dam failures that involved Canadian companies, including the Omai tailings dam failure in Guyana in 1995.
MAC is prepared to make changes to its TSM program if the B.C. investigation shows gaps in design or regulation of tailings dams, Mr. Gratton said. Referring to a landmark Supreme Court of Canada decision in June that recognized aboriginal title held by the Tsilhqot'in Nation, Mr. Gratton said the mining industry is already accustomed to negotiating and working with First Nations.
"I don't know of any mining company today developing a new project in Canada that is not actively building or trying to build strong relationships with local aboriginal groups," he said.