A report to be released on Friday will pinpoint the cause of the Mount Polley dam failure and is expected to lead to new safety standards for the entire Canadian mining industry.
But blame and consequences for any misconduct won't be part of the story this week. Almost six months after the ecological disaster, responsibility for the collapse of the tailings pond that released millions of cubic metres of waste material into Quesnel Lake and other waterways in central British Columbia is still under investigation.
The provincial government is set to release the results of a geotechnical inquiry by an independent panel – this will be the engineers' explanation of what went wrong.
The report's findings could pave the way for the partial reopening of the copper and gold mine 55 kilometres northeast of Williams Lake. Two other investigations have yet to be published that would determine if any fines or prosecution are warranted – one by the Chief Inspector of Mines and the second by the Conservation Officer Service, a law-enforcement body that would send any recommendations for charges to provincial Crown Counsel.
The results of those probes could be months away, and officials from the Ministry of Mines said Tuesday a decision on the application to resume operations at Mount Polley is expected by mid-March. "Any findings or recommendations made by the panel may help to inform the review process," ministry spokesman David Haslam said Tuesday.
Opposition leader John Horgan said the government sought to inoculate itself against criticism it may face as a result of this week's report by announcing on Monday more funds to beef up mine inspections. "The Premier is trying to get out ahead of this damaging report because it was her government that made deep cuts to inspections and monitoring in the first place," he said Tuesday. He said he will be looking for evidence that those cutbacks to inspections at Mount Polley contributed to the failure.
Mines Minister Bill Bennett could not be reached for comment Tuesday. However, in a statement, he said the report should provide recommendations to improve mining safety after the "shocking incident that should not have happened." The Mount Polley incident has put a spotlight on the province's role in regulating and inspecting mines, which has hampered his government's efforts to expand mining as a key plank in its jobs agenda.
Pierre Gratton, president of the Mining Association of Canada, said he expects recommendations on Friday that will require action by industry across the country. "We need to know if this was preventable. We all want to see the report and if it has anything to do with management systems, we at [the mining association] have a lot of work to do. And we're ready for it."
The earthen dam collapsed on Aug. 4, leaving a massive, V-shaped gap, 150 metres wide at the narrowest point. The initial breach sent about 17 million cubic metres of water and eight million cubic metres of tailings into Polley Lake and Quesnel Lake, and the company is still working to repair the dam before the spring thaw brings millions of cubic metres of water flooding through the site.
Steve Robertson, a spokesman for Imperial Mines Corp., which owns Mount Polley, said the company submitted the findings of its own geotechnical report to explain the failure to the independent panel. "Our submission was quite thorough in its descriptions of the characteristics of the failure." However, he would not comment on the possible conclusions of the panel.
Imperial Mines applied earlier this month to partly reopen the mine using a new location for its tailings. By offering up a new site for its tailings, the operators say they don't need to wait for all the investigations into the breach to be completed.
"The report is going to presumably be about the tailing storage facility, which doesn't play a role in the modified restart we have planned," Mr. Robertson said. Between cleanup operations and the partial restart, the company would have about 370 workers on the payroll – the same number of employees it had before the dam breached.