Bill Bennett, B.C's minister of energy and mines, says Imperial Metals will have to acknowledge and pay for any mistakes that led to the massive breach earlier this week of the tailings pond at its mine in central B.C.
The breach of the tailings pond dam at the copper and gold mine near Likely, B.C., released 10 billion litres of water and 4.5 million cubic metres of metals-laden fine sand, contaminating several lakes, creeks and rivers in the Cariboo region on Monday.
- VIDEO TOUR | Quesnel Lake resident shows CBC aftermath of breach
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- RAW VIDEO | View from a helicopter over the tailings breach zone
- PHOTOS | 'The devastation up the lake is unbelievable'
Speaking at a news conference Wednesday afternoon, Bennett said a pollution abatement order had been issued to Mount Polley Mining Corp., owned by Imperial Metals. If the firm does not comply, it could face fines of up to $1 million.
"If the company has made some mistakes... they will have to bear the responsibility," Bennett told reporters in Williams Lake.
The order requires the company to take immediate action to stop the further release of mine tailings into nearby waterways and to submit environmental impact assessments and clean-up action plans to the ministry.
The minister said government inspectors are on site to conduct an investigation to determine how the tailings pond's wall collapsed.
As part of that investigation, inspectors will interview all staff at the Mount Polley Mine, including those who used to work for the company.
Bennett said it's too early to tell what type of threat the mine's waste products pose to humans and wildlife.
"We will have a much better idea 24 hours from now on the quality in Quesnel Lake," he said.
The minister confirmed Imperial Metals had been warned once before about high water levels in its tailings pond.
Imperial Metals was asked to remove water after a site inspection in May.
Government collecting water samples
Jennifer McGuire, a manager with the provincial Environment Ministry, said crews are collecting water samples and results are expected Thursday.
In sampling, McGuire said inspectors will be looking for metals, nitrates and sulphates.
McGuire said crews have not yet found any dead fish in Quesnel Lake.
The government is asking any residents who find dead fish to contact the Environment Ministry.
Meantime, Al Richmond, Cariboo Regional Chair, said residents affected by the water ban are a priority.
Richmond said delivering water to residents and securing portable shower facilities will continue Thursday.
The next public meeting will be also be held Thursday in Likely.
- On mobile? Click here for aerial footage over the spill site from Tuesday, provided by the B.C. Ministry of Transportation
State of emergency declared
A local state of emergency was declared in the Cariboo Regional District on Wednesday, roughly 48 hours after the Mount Polley Mine's tailings pond wall gave way.
The force of the breach scoured away the banks of Hazeltine Creek and sent debris flowing into Quesnel Lake and Polley Lake, which rose 1.5 metres.
In a post on its emergency operations department's Facebook page, the regional district said the local state of emergency status would help it "access additional capacity that may be necessary to further protect the private property and government infrastructure in the town of Likely."
'We regularly perform toxicity tests and we know this water is not toxic to rainbow trout.' —Bryan Kynoch, president of Mount Polley mine owner Imperial Metals
Brian Kynoch, president of the mine's owner, Imperial Metals, told CBC News on Wednesday morning that water was still flowing from the pond, despite the fact that it's virtually empty.
Work crews were out all night trying to close the dam and secure the debris flow areas, he said.
Questions over water quality
The exact composition of the pond water released into the environment is not known.
In the meantime, a drinking water and water-use ban remains in place on all consumption or recreational use of the Quesnel and Cariboo river systems from the spill site to the Fraser River, several hundred kilometres away.
At a community meeting in Likely on Tuesday, Kynoch said the water from the copper and gold mine's tailings pond was "very close to drinking water quality," though the silt, the "ground-up rock" left over after extracting the metals, poses a problem.
- MORE | Mount Polley Mine tailings water 'very close' to drinking quality, company says
- IN DEPTH | Tailings ponds: What's in them and what risks do they pose?
A summary of the material dumped into the tailings pond last year was filed with Environment Canada. It said there was 326 tonnes of nickel, over 400 tonnes of arsenic, 177 tonnes of lead and 18,400 tonnes of copper and its compounds placed in the pond last year.
"Specifically, mercury has never been detected in our water and arsenic levels are about one-fifth of drinking water quality," Kynoch told roughly 200 people at the meeting. "We regularly perform toxicity tests and we know this water is not toxic to rainbow trout."
Kynoch also apologized to the local residents and business operators.
"I apologize for what happened," Kynoch said at the emotionally charged meeting. "If you had asked me two weeks ago if that could happen, I would have said it couldn't happen, so I know that for our company, it's going to take a long time to earn the community's trust back."
A logging company crew was able to tow a log jam away from the Quesnel River, averting potential flooding or damage to a bridge in Likely, but residents were frustrated with the lack of information in the hours and days after the breach.
Residents react, criticize communications
Diane Gibson, owner of the post office and restaurant on the Likely riverfront, said she heard nothing until she went to nearby Williams Lake and overheard the news in a store.
Alfred Hillary, a business owner who lives just below the mine, said their phones were out and he didn't receive a phone call. He heard about the breach over his emergency responder radio.
Hillary blamed the mine for failing to address earlier problems, but in the small community devastated by the downturn in the local forest industry, many residents were prepared to stand by the company.
"This town relies upon Mount Polley, so we're hurting," Gibson said. "I, personally, don't blame Mount Polley. There's lots of people who will point fingers. It is unnecessary to point fingers until we're in full view of the facts.
"Needless to say, it's going to hurt us regardless of whose fault it is."