British Columbia

Mount Polley mine spill: Drinking-water ban partially lifted

The water-use ban imposed after the Mount Polley Mine breach in B.C.'s Cariboo region has been partially lifted, after new water quality testing results were revealed.

Latest tests in area show water is drinkable, but some concerns over aquatic life

Challenges of Mount Polley mine cleanup

9 years ago
Duration 2:00
CBC's Kirk Williams looks at some of the dangers and challenges faced by workers in the aftermath of the Mount Polley tailings pond breach in B.C.

The water-use ban imposed after the Mount Polley Mine breach in B.C.'s Cariboo region has been partially lifted, after new water quality testing results were revealed.

The pond breached on Monday, releasing 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.

That is the equivalent of sending 5,800 Olympic swimming pools worth of wastewater and potentially toxic silt into nearby waterways.

In a press release on Friday afternoon, regional health authority Interior Health said it was rescinding the water-use ban after a team of medical health officers and water specialists reviewed the most recent water sample results from the B.C. Environment Ministry.

The water ban is rescinded for those north on the Quesnel River where it narrows and is shallow, including and north of 6236 Cedar Creek Road on the Quesnel River and the balance of the Quesnel River system to the Fraser River.

Interior Health said this water may now be consumed as normal. The health authority also said the water is safe for recreational purposes, but advised staying away from the area, given the amount of debris on the waters.

The health authority emphasized that the water ban remains in place for Polley Lake, Hazeltine Creek, Cariboo Creek and all parts of Quesnel Lake and points south of 6236 Cedar Creek Road on the Quesnel River in Likely.

In addition, the press release said, the water-use ban for the wider area could be reinstated if Polley Lake overflowed sending an large flow of water into the surrounding waterways.

Residents were advised Monday not to bathe in or drink the water because authorities were concerned heavy metals from the mine, owned by Imperial Metals, could be poisonous.

Energy and Mines Minister Bill Bennett says there is a chance the spill may not be toxic, because the copper and gold mine is not generating acid, meaning caustic chemicals are not leached out of the rocks and into the water.

New water test results good

The news came after B.C. Environment Minister Mary Polak announced the second set of water quality testing results earlier on Friday.

The samples were taken on August 5 at five different locations along the Quesnel River, to determine potential impacts on drinking water quality and aquatic life.

"For the second straight day, we have received water quality sample results that meet British Columbia or Health Canada drinking water guidelines," Polak said.

Polak warned these were surface samples, since it was still unsafe to get access for testing at different depths and locations, but said they were a good early indicator of the safety of the water.

"We're absolutely committed to getting full and accurate results as soon as we possibly can," she said. Polak also said a sampling plan is being developed that would include the Fraser River.

The tailings pond breach near the town of Likely, B.C., released 10 billion litres of water and 4.5 million cubic metres of metals-laden fine sand, contaminating lakes, creeks and rivers in the region. (Jonathan Hayward/Canadian Press)

Interior Health said it will keep the ongoing water advisory in place because it believes further testing is needed, since these tests are preliminary and based on a small sample.

On Friday, Jennifer McGuire, also with the ministry, said there was still no expectation that aquatic life would be impacted by cadmium levels.

McGuire had also said there was concern over zinc levels, which were testing under the acute level, but slightly in excess of the chronic guideline level.

The ministry later issued a correction to the cited zinc levels, saying the numbers for acute and chronic levels had been reversed.

They had also been wrongly converted into milligrams per litre instead of micrograms per litre, said the ministry.

Taking all of that into account, the zinc levels found in the samples tested exceeded neither the acute nor chronic guidelines for aquatic life.

The samples were tested for pH, conductivity, turbidity, total suspended solids, total dissolved solids, hardness, alkalinity, nutrients, general ions, total and dissolved metals, and E.coli.

McGuire also said officials are still awaiting the results of a sample taken from Polley Lake, two live fish sent for tissue sampling and sediment testing.

On mobile? Click here for the latest drinking water and aquatic guidelines tests and explanatory note

Imperial Metals 'ready, willing and able' to pay

Polak also said Imperial Metals is committed to paying the long-term costs of cleaning up, after the tailings pond at its Mount Polley Mine ruptured on Monday near Likely.

Speaking to the media on Friday, the minster said it's the responsibility of the company to pay for the cleanup.

"We have a polluter-pay model in British Columbia and we expect the company will be the one paying for the cleanup and recovery," she said.

Mount Polley mine tour

"They have significant assets and I, as yet, have not heard any concern from them with respect to affording the long-term costs of this.

"In fact, I've heard commitments that they are ready, willing and able to continue to fund what they need to."

According to a report in the Financial Post, BMO analyst Aleksandra Bukacheva has estimated the cost to the company could be $200 million, although legal damages could double that amount.

Speaking at a community meeting on Thursday night, Imperial Metals president Brian Kynoch said he has committed to pay for the cleanup but he doubted the company's insurance would cover costs that high.

"I made the commitment, to the best of my ability. If it's $400 million, then we are going to have to get mines generating to make that money to do the cleanup.

"We don't have $400 million in the bank, so we'll have to make that to do it."

Christy Clark: 'Our hearts are with you'

B.C. Premier Christy Clark met with concerned Likely residents on Thursday.

Clark told Likely residents after the accidental release: "Everybody across British Columbia, our hearts are with you. This is a pristine resource for everybody, but for nobody more than you. And I know it's just been a terrible, terrible heartache."

Clark said the cause of the breach remained a mystery, but once that had been established, the province would decide what it would do differently.

"We are going to be with you, shoulder to shoulder, to do everything we can to return it to the real pristine beauty we all know this lake is for our province, because this is just such an incredible, incredible asset and so important to all of you."

Red Chris mine blockade announced

As First Nations groups call for action on the risk mining poses to the environment, a group known as the Klabona Keepers from the Tahltan First Nation announced they will blockade Red Chris Mine in Prince George, B.C.

The pending mine is owned by Imperial Metals, the same company running the Mount Polley Mine, and protester Rhoda Quock said the community now has serious concerns after the Mount Polley breach.

The move comes after the Assembly of First Nations called for immediate action to limit the damage done by what they called a "developing and deeply troubling environmental crisis."

"There are immediate risks to the residents, the environment and the economy — particularly the fisheries,​" said AFN BC Regional Chief Jody Wilson-Raybould in a press release.

"This area is upstream from the Fraser River and is a major spawning ground for salmon, both of which are integral to Indigenous peoples culture and way of life."

Association of First Nations Alberta Regional Chief Cameron Alexis, who oversees the environment portfolio for the AFN, said First Nations communities are often the first to feel the impact of environmental changes.

 "First Nations and many Canadians continue to be concerned about the weakening of environmental standards and protection of waterways and fish habitats as a result of recent changes to legislation," said Alexis in the same statement. 

"We must focus on the need to include First Nations in early planning and mitigation as well as monitoring the long-term effects where our lands and traditional territories are concerned. This is our right and this approach will benefit all Canadians."

With files from The Canadian Press