In a few months, the end of winter will bring millions of cubic metres of water flooding down into the Mount Polley mine site, threatening cleanup operations of the tailings-pond breach, B.C. Environment Minister Mary Polak warns.
Even as the company is planning to file an application by the end of November for an interim permit to restart operations, Ms. Polak told reporters on Monday she is concerned the coming spring breakup will overwhelm the tailings facility in its current state.
The initial breach of the dam on Aug. 4 sent about 17 million cubic metres of water and eight million cubic metres of tailings into Polley Lake and Quesnel Lake.
Imperial Mines, owner of the open-pit copper and gold mine, hopes to repair the breach in the dam before the spring freshet, which usually brings between two and three million cubic metres of water from the headwaters of Hazeltine Creek through the mine site, 55 kilometres northeast of Williams Lake.
"One of our key concerns right now is being prepared for the spring freshet, the breakup," Ms. Polak told reporters. "We know there is going to be additional water flow and we have concerns about what that might mean for additional sediment being pushed into Quesnel Lake."
Ms. Polak told reporters the cleanup will take years, and despite extensive work since August, she said the company has likely done less than 2 per cent of the job.
"The scale of the initial disaster is tremendous," she said. "Full remediation is going to be a matter of years, not months."
Steve Robertson, spokesman for Imperial Metals, said the company hopes to repair the breach in the dam in the coming months in order to contain the coming spring runoff.
The failure in August left a massive, V-shaped hole in the dam, 150 metres wide at the narrowest point.
Until now, the company hasn't been able to repair the breach because of an ongoing investigation.
A temporary berm has been constructed to prevent further leaks. With the spring thaw expected by late March, the company wants approval to repair the earthen dam to contain the coming deluge.
At the same time, the company is finalizing its application for a permit to operate on a temporary basis, using one of the site's open pits for tailings storage while the work continues on the dam.
"We will not be talking about a long-term restart of the mine. A temporary operations permit would allow us to get revenue to fund the restoration work and to keep our work force intact," Mr. Robertson said. The company currently has about 350 people working on the cleanup but the mining operation has been closed since August.
The cause of the dam failure is not yet known, and the government has launched three investigations. None of them is expected to be made public until some time next year.
Mines Minister Bill Bennett said the company and its workers should not expect a quick turnaround on any application to get the mine permanently reopened. "I think that would be a matter of years as opposed to months," he said, although an interim permit using a different tailings pond could be approved more quickly.
NDP mines critic Norm Macdonald said he would support the reopening of the mine even as the investigations into the breach continue.
"I don't think the two are mutually exclusive. We would encourage the reopening, it is not only important to the local economy, but they have to retain a skilled work force."
However, after reviewing documents released Monday by the Ministry of Environment, he said there are still troubling gaps in the company's plan to clean up the spill.
"We still need to get to the bottom of what took place and make sure it doesn't happen anywhere else," he said. "And we have to make sure the remediation takes place, as much as it can. There is still uncertainty about the company's plans."