One year after a catastrophic dam breach, the Mount Polley Mine in B.C.'s interior has passed the first phase of remediation and resumed operations, with restrictions.
The August, 2014, dam failure sent millions of cubic metres of mine waste and water into area waterways and forced the government to toughen mine permitting requirements. Imperial Metals Corp. has completed Phase 1 cleanup by taking steps to ensure increased water flow at Mount Polley does not result in additional environmental or human health impacts, according to the B.C. Ministry of Environment. The company has also ensured that water quality entering Quesnel Lake meets provincial standards.
Environment Minister Mary Polak said in a briefing on Wednesday that a "significant amount of work" has been done in the past 12 months, but acknowledged full remediation and restoration will take years.
The B.C. government issued the conditional permit allowing the Mount Polley mine to reopen earlier this month. However, the company cannot discharge water until it receives a second conditional permit, likely in the early fall.
The company must also submit a long-term water treatment and discharge plan to both the Environment and Mines ministries by next June.
The tailings pond dam at the Mount Polley Mine collapsed last August, spilling 24-million cubic metres of mine waste and water into area lakes and waterways in B.C.'s Cariboo region. A report by an expert panel released last January found that the structure collapsed because it was built on a foundation underlain with glacial silt.
Ms. Polak said the government has spent about $6-million on its share of the cleanup, but will be looking to recover costs it is entitled to.
"Some of our costs, such as for investigations, are not recoverable because they fall within our regular duties," she said. "But we will be seeking to recover our costs for salary, overtime, travel, sampling costs and other expenses."
Following the expert panel review, the B.C. government changed its environmental assessment process to require more information from companies proposing to build mines with new tailings dams. This information includes the potential risks and implications of the selected tailings management option and proof that other options have been considered.
Mines Minister Bill Bennett describes the new process as being much more rigorous.
"We need to have some certainty that they have chosen the best method for a particular location and a particular type of mine," he said.
On July 10, the Ministry of Environment issued a pollution abatement order to the Yellow Giant Mine on Banks Island in Northern B.C. in relation to a spill that occurred at a backfill dump location. The company said the spill was estimated to be 240 cubic metres of water containing one tonne of solids.
On July 15, the Ministry of Energy and Mines issued the company a shutdown order, pending receipt and approval of updated sediment control, water management and tailings management plans.
The company says it has since submitted the revised plans but that production has been "significantly impacted."
So far this year, the Ministry of Energy and Mines has also issued shutdown orders to Braelorne, Myra Falls and Quinsam.
Meanwhile, a new report from the U.S. has found that large-scale mine waste spills are increasing in "frequency, severity and cost" and that current regulatory systems do not sufficiently address the resulting economic and ecological losses.
"There is no backstop for a failure like Mount Polley; if the company can't pay for it, then the public is on the hook, because if they don't pay they suffer the environmental consequences of it," said David Chambers, a mining technical specialist who co-authored the report with Lindsay Newland Bowker, a researcher and former risk manager for the New York City Department of Environmental Protection.
"With this type of event, our public policy has been polluter pays, but that's not what's happening. It's taxpayer pay. It's basically a subsidy to this industry, and we aren't giving this kind of subsidy to similar industries."