Police executed search warrants at the Mount Polley mine on Tuesday on behalf of the B.C. Conservation Officer Service, one of the agencies still investigating the tailings dam disaster.
At the same time that Imperial Metals, the owner of the mine, was marking the start of operations at its new Red Chris mine in northern B.C., police arrived at the Mount Polley mine site, 100 kilometres northeast of Williams Lake, to collect evidence for the conservation service. The service is an independent law-enforcement body that can recommend charges when warranted to provincial Crown Counsel.
Steve Robertson, vice-president of corporate affairs for Imperial Metals, said the search for documents at the mine site, almost six months after the catastrophic dam failure, was not surprising "Nothing too extreme going on there, it's just the execution of a warrant by the Conservation Service," he said Tuesday. "We didn't know when it was coming, but we were certainly expecting it to happen."
He said the mine officials are fully co-operating with police, and called it a "positive step in our eyes" because it advances one of the two outstanding investigations.
"This is a great opportunity for us to move forward," he said. "The panel report that came out [last week] found there was a single cause for the failure, a design flaw. We look forward to all these investigations being completed and we expect there will be similar results."
Operations at the Red Chris mine began Tuesday without the usual ribbon-cutting that a new mine typically attracts. Against the backdrop of the Mount Polley tailings dam disaster, Imperial Mines is moving tentatively to bring online the new project – one that is critical to helping the company pay its substantial environmental cleanup costs.
The Red Chris mine, 80 kilometres south of Dease Lake in northwestern British Columbia, received an interim permit to begin processing copper and gold ore and to use its tailings pond this week, just days after a report was released on the dam failure at the company's Mount Polley tailings facility last August.
An expert panel review concluded that the design of the tailings pond dam at the Mount Polley mine failed to address the unstable foundation on which it sits, a flaw that was compounded over the many years that the dam was repeatedly raised to accommodate a growing lake of toxic waste. Mines Minister Bill Bennett described the design failure as a "loaded gun."
Even as the province looks at a new regulatory environment with stricter safety standards for its mines, the chief inspector of mines issued the preliminary permit required to commission the Red Chris project – providing a cash flow that Imperial Metals needs as the company's cleanup costs mount and efforts to restart operations at Mount Polley are stalled.
The company expects Red Chris to be at full production, with 30,000 tonnes of material flowing into the tailings pond, by May. At that time, it will need to apply for a full permit once it has proved the tailings pond facility – and the dam – is performing as promised.
Meanwhile, members of the Soda Creek Band, Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs and First Nations Summit announced their support of the recommendations proposed by the panel that reviewed the Mount Polley incident.
The panel's policy recommendations, released on Jan. 31, would ensure the use of better technology at future tailings facilities, a definitive response process to regulatory evaluations of facilities and improved safety guidelines.
"The province has to act immediately so that communities can know that the mine adjacent to their community is safe and there are no health risks attached to it," said Grand Chief Ed John of the First Nations Summit.
First Nations leaders acknowledged the importance of mining to the local economy. But, they said, the development of the mining industry should not come at the cost of the environment.
"We have to speak out for other animals and birds and fish that depend on the ecosystem. That is paramount for us," said Grand Chief Stewart Phillip, president of the Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs. "When you get that right, then the economic side of course is important."
Chief Bev Sellars said First Nations rejected a permit for the Mount Polley mine to resume operations at half-capacity because details in the proposal were insufficient. "There are so many questions that we have that remained unanswered and that has to change," Ms. Sellars said.