It is not too soon, in Williams Lake, to talk about reopening the Mount Polley mine. Not three months has passed since the tailings pond dam failed, releasing millions of cubic metres of waste into central British Columbia waterways.
The province and the company are still working on a cleanup plan that will take years to fully implement.
It will be months, at least, before any clear explanation for the dam failure is made public.
But Williams Lake city council, mindful of the uncertain future for hundreds of mine workers, is drafting a letter to Premier Christy Clark – expected to be approved this week – to urge her to get the gold-copper mine back to full operation.
The mine is 55 kilometres from Williams Lake, and many of its workers and suppliers reside in the community. The province has launched three investigations into the ecological disaster, and has cautioned against rushing to judgment on just what happened and why.
"It is going to be really important that none of us form conclusions until we get to the end of those investigations," Environment Minister Mary Polak said last month.
In a recent interview, Ms. Polak said it is possible the mine could reopen before all those investigations are concluded.
The geotechnical inquiry – the engineers' explanation of what went wrong – is expected to be complete by the end of January. A more complex probe involving the RCMP and conservation services from two levels of government could take longer. "For the sake of argument," she said, "if the geotechnical is done and it appears that what the conservation officers are investigating isn't germane to the day-to-day safety of operations, we could proceed."
The government is partly to blame for the long timelines. Last month it changed the law so that an investigation under the Mines Act can take up to three years to lead to charges or fines.
The mining industry – heavy backers of the B.C. Liberal government – would not be thrilled to see an asset such as Mount Polley frozen for three years. Additionally, the Liberals have made the expansion of the mining industry a central part of their jobs plan. To have any mine kept in limbo for any length of time is anathema to that plan.
Even the owners of Mount Polley are cautious about being seen to be too hasty, however. Imperial Metals spokesman Steve Robertson noted there are three geotechnical investigations under way – including one by the company – and the company won't even talk about "when, how, or if we can get back into production" until those results are in.
He acknowledged there is anxiety in the community about the jobs. Prior to the dam failure, the company had 370 workers. Today, about 400 people are working on the cleanup, including 330 of the original staff. But that work is day-to-day and the immediate cleanup and repair work are almost complete.
Ms. Polak expects to announce a long-range remediation plan in the next few weeks that will lay out the path ahead for the mine.
The company will then have to decide whether it will apply to restart the mine. If it does apply, it will have to jump through a number of regulatory hoops. Ms. Polak said her government wants to see Mount Polley back in operation, but there needs to be a process that is credible and that people can trust.
The First Nations who live downstream of the mine have been assured they will have a voice in the mine's future. They are stepping up to assume the role of a watchdog.
"People don't have any trust in the company and the government now; they are looking to the First Nations to make sure everything is done right," said Soda Creek First Nations Chief Bev Sellars. She is emphatic that the mine should stay closed as long as the cause of the dam's breach is under investigation. "We have to see what those investigations produce and we have to have our experts look at them, and we have to make a determination on whether the mine will reopen."
A credible process to reopen the mine is a tall order. Industry and government may not like it, but the First Nations will play an important role in rebuilding that trust – or not.