Mount Polley Mining Corporation has been granted permission to drain treated mining waste water into Quesnel Lake, a massive glacial lake that provides drinking water to residents of Likely B.C., northeast of Williams Lake.
Approval of the long-term waste water management plan came April 7, despite a disaster that put the water at risk in 2014 and a provincial investigation into the spill that is not yet complete.
"The timing is absolutely surprising," said Ugo Lapointe of Mining Watch Canada, who pointed out the news release came on a Friday afternoon before the launching of the B.C. election.
Quesnel Lake, famed for trophy-sized rainbow trout, is feared at risk by locals who describe it as the deepest fjord lake on earth, and who protest any dump of mining waste, treated or otherwise, which can carry toxic elements and heavy metals such as arsenic and lead or zinc.
"It's hard not to be cynical," said Lapointe who said locals opposing the plan felt ignored.
But Environment Minister Mary Polak told CBC the decision was made by neutral civil servants based on science that confirmed draining treated water into the river, as opposed to the lake, was riskier.
"These decisions do not cross any politicians desk. In fact if I was to interfere with the decision I could be in some very serious legal trouble," Polak told CBC.
"That is one of the ways we ensure that there is never any influence by companies that might donate to political parties."
A spokesperson for Mount Polley mine and for Imperial Metals says fears of water quality are overblown.
"People think that there is a slurry of mud and silt. It's absolutely not toxic. Most mines in the world are very envious of our water quality," said Steve Robertson, Imperial Metals spokesperson, who called the aftermath of the Mount Polley mine breach an "environmental success story."
New long-term waste water management
Under the Ministry of the Environment's plan, mining waste water would be collected in ditches that would drain into small ponds, allowing solids to settle.
Water would then be routed to a treatment plant before being piped into Quesnel Lake at a depth of 45 metres, 250 metres from shore in order to dilute it as fast as possible.
The Concerned Citizens of Quesnel Lake (CCQL) have long called for stricter mining waste-water purity standards.
."We don't agree with the plan. We drink the water. We swim in it. We fish it," said Christine McLean of CCQL.
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The quiet April 7 approval comes three years after a tailings pond disaster that spilled 17 million cubic metres of water and some 8 million cubic metres of tailings material — into surrounding waterways.
So far, the Aug. 4, 2014 disaster has resulted in no fines or criminal charges.
The estimated $67.4-million clean-up was paid for by Imperial Metals, which then wrote-off that operating cost, said Robertson, adding that the company did nothing wrong.
A report by All Hoffman, B.C.'s chief mine inspector, blamed the environmental disaster on a flawed dam design and "poor practices."
But critics the plan focuses too much on what's cost efficient.
Mining Watch points to the bad optics of the $4.7 million in political donations given to the governing B.C. Liberals over the past 10 years — by mining companies including Imperial Metals Corp. — as problematic when it comes to decisions about waste disposal.
"It's really disappointing," said Nikki Skuce of Northern Confluence, a Smithers-based activist group trying to protect B.C.'s salmon watersheds.
She said the approval of the long-term waste-water management system gives the mining company a "free ride" and ignores 250 signatures, many First Nations, gathered by grassroots leader with the Xat'sull First Nation, Jacinda Mack,
What happened to investigation?
The timing of the approval also heightens the concerns of activists who may pursue private prosecution against the mining company, depending on what the province finds in its investigation.
Lapointe said some of the laws that the company could be charged with under the B.C. Mine's Act have a statute limitations of three years — a deadline that's up soon.
If a B.C. investigation into the matter by the Crown and several ministries takes too long, it will be too late for stakeholders to try to bring any new actions.
"That's why it's really important to put pressure ... or time will run out," said Lapointe who fears the delay may be related to the ongoing election.
Mining Watch launched a case arguing the province and Mt. Polley Mining Corp. violated the Fisheries Act when the tailings pond collapsed in 2014.
The allegations have not been proven in court, and the Crown has argued there is no prospect of conviction in the case.
But Lapointe argued inaction sets a dangerous precedent telling mining companies "basically you can do whatever you want in Canada."