British Columbia

Mount Polley mine disaster: 3 years later concerns still remain

Three years after the Mount Polley mine disaster, there are still concerns over the adequacy of regulation and oversight in the mining industry.

Auditor general says improvements have been made but better separation needed between government and industry

Mount Polley spill disaster

6 years ago
Duration 0:25
A broken tailings dam sent 24 million cubic meters of mining waste into nearby lakes and rivers.

Three years after the Mount Polley mine disaster, there are still concerns over the adequacy of regulation and oversight in the mining industry.

In 2014, the mine's tailings dam broke sending 24 million cubic metres of mining waste into nearby lakes and rivers. An independent engineering panel identified overlooked glacial layers beneath the dam resulting in an unstable foundation, as the reason for the failure.

B.C. Auditor General Carol Bellringer led a two-year investigation into the Mount Polley mining operation and the role of the Ministry of Environment and the Ministry of Energy and Mines. 

Her 2016 report pointed out several failures in compliance and found enforcement of mining regulations were "inadequate to protect the province from significant environmental risks."

Key recommendation not fully implemented

Bellringer says the report's key recommendation was to create separation between the people responsible for promoting the mining industry and the people tasked with ensuring compliance and enforcement activities. 

"The design of the Ministry of Energy and Mines was that they both promoted the industry — encouraging companies to set up in B.C. — but they were also responsible for regulations," Bellringer said.

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In response, the ministry set up a committee with deputy ministers from within the government.

"It's not a bad solution, but it's not as independent as we would have liked," Bellringer said. "We would expect something like an independent Crown corporation to make sure policies were being followed."​

Hazeltine Creek, pictured here on September 22, 2016, sustained much of the damage of the Mount Polley mine tailings dam breach. Residents say the area has still not fully recovered. (Jacinda Mack)

Bellringer says creating separation is not an uncommon practice in other jurisdictions, and it ensures that the focus of regulation is on environmental protection. 

She says regulation enforcement would have made for a faster and much better funded cleanup. The general rule is the polluter should pay for damage, but she says Mount Polley did not have adequate funds.

"They were short about a billion in terms of estimated liabilities at the major mines," said Bellringer.

Her findings led to the adoption of 26 recommendations to improve mining codes and the eventual reopening of the mine.

Fear from residents impacted 

Jacinda Mack, the co-ordinator of First Nations Women Advocating Responsible Mining (FNWARM), was living close to the mine when the dam broke and has visited the site multiple times since then. She believes that the disaster indicates a lack of knowledge about mining risks.

"I think Mount Polley proved that the level of risk was beyond anything that anyone could understand," said Mack. "There was a complete catastrophic failure which everyone said would not happen."

She says there needs to be a more thorough,publicly available risk assessment when building new mines.

Restoration is still ongoing at Hazeltine Creek, pictured here on September 22, 2016. (Jacinda Mack)

"In mining, there has to be a worst case scenario put forward, because, when a mine is proposed, all we hear about are the benefits," she said.

In September of 2016, Mack visited Hazeltine Creek, which suffered the most direct damage from the disaster. She says while some cleanup has been done, she believes the damage to the environment has been immeasurable.

"They started planting along the creek and recovering it with willow. But in a lot of it, nothing is growing." 

Others say accidents inevitable

However, other residents say that Mount Polley has attracted much-needed businesses to the area and aren't too concerned about its continued operation.

Randy Kadonaga owns Likely Lodge on the edge of Quesnel Lake, which opened the same year the disaster happened. He says he isn't worried.

"As long as they learn their lesson, mining isn't an issue with me. It provides economy to the area," Kadonaga said.

He says he hasn't noticed big changes to the wildlife or environment, at least on his end of the lake.

"There's no three-eyed fish. There's no dead fish in the waters. There's no dead animals or anything like that."

Constant monitoring required

Bellringer still can't say if the improvements that have been made to the provincial mining code have been satisfactory, since she has yet to complete another audit.

But she stresses that operating a mine requires constant inspection and oversight, which always has a margin of human error. 

"These [mines] are going to require lifetime water treatment and monitoring.  We will not be taking our eyes away from it."