The reopened Mount Polley mine is still at dangerous risk of another tailings pond collapse, despite British Columbia's new mining code provisions aimed at ensuring that such a disaster never happens again, says a U.S. mining-sector analyst.
David Chambers, president of the Montana-based Center for Science in Public Participation – which provides technical assistance on mining and water quality to public interest groups – examined the conclusions of the government-appointed expert panel that reviewed the 2014 disaster.
On behalf of the Sierra Club BC, Mr. Chambers concluded that there is still latitude for problematic dam construction that could cause future issues, also noting there is a risk of another Mount Polley-type spill without engineering to deal with excess rainwater in such operations.
"One of the disturbing things I got out of this report is that there could be future failures," said Bob Peart, who is executive director of the Sierra Club BC.
In August, 2014, the tailings pond at the gold and copper mine failed, pouring more than 20 million cubic metres of mine waste and water into surrounding rivers and lakes in the region, about 400 kilometres northeast of Vancouver near Quesnel Lake.
Among other problems, the spill forced a nine-day drinking-water ban for residents in the area. It also raised concerns about the longer-term impact on fish and wildlife.
The B.C. government reacted with mining-code revisions, including new design standards for tailings storage facilities, which it says will ensure such a disaster never happens again.
But Mr. Chambers is raising concerns about the conclusions of the expert panel that reviewed the disaster. In a report to be released Thursday, he wrote that real change in managing operations similar to Mount Polley will cost more than present practices.
"The code guidance does not go far enough to truly implement the expert panel recommendations for tailings dam stability," Mr. Chambers wrote.
He was travelling in Alaska on Wednesday and unavailable for comment.
The Ministry of Energy and Mines was also unavailable for comment, but Minister Bill Bennett said last month that he was confident new regulations would prevent any future accident with a tailings storage facility in British Columbia.
Al Hoffman, British Columbia's chief inspector of mines, said, "We've worked very hard on these code revisions and I think we've filled in a lot of those cracks. … So it's very unlikely it will happen again."
The independent review of the disaster concluded that the tailings dam collapsed because original designs did not consider the strength and location of clay beneath the dam. Construction on an initial dam at the site was completed in 1997. Operators have added to its height in subsequent years.
The mine is owned by Imperial Metals Corp. In June, the company was cleared to fully resume operations. Since the spill, Imperial has spent more than $70-million on remediation and restoration work, including the planting of about 30,000 trees and shrubs to repair damage caused by the spill.
Mr. Chambers also found that regulations should be more explicit about minimizing incident and run-on storm water in such operations, and that the ministry should ensure that physical stability or safety is given more weight than other factors in any risk assessments.
Without "additional guidance," he wrote, the risk-assessment process may give "financial impacts more explicit or implicit priority than safety and health."
Imperial Metals has launched a lawsuit in B.C. Supreme Court alleging negligence and breach of contract by two engineering firms involved in the design and monitoring of the ill-fated tailings operation.
The Mount Polley tailings breach is also the subject of an ongoing investigation by a task force from the B.C. Conservation Officer Service, as well as the federal Fisheries Department and Environment Canada. Once the investigation is done, the member agencies will decide, along with the B.C. Justice Ministry and the Public Prosecution Service of Canada, on the most "efficient" next step, the B.C. conservation service said in a statement issued Wednesday.
Mr. Peart of the Sierra Club described Mr. Chambers as a credible observer in the field of mine operations whose observations have some weight. "His name has been a fundamental part of these conversations for years, and he is reputable," he said from Victoria. "This isn't a higgledy-piggledy back-of-the-envelope analysis."
Mr. Peart said he hopes the report will have a positive impact on the B.C. mining sector. "There are some good, responsible companies out there, and I think the good, responsible companies will be able to see a report such as this and be able to go, 'Yes. We're doing that,'" he said.
"I think it maybe is a wake-up call for some of the companies that aren't as professional and I really hope that the government listens to reports such as this and tightens up their recommendations."