The complete failure of the tailings dam at Imperial Metals’ Mount Polley copper–gold mine in Central B.C.’s Cariboo region on Aug. 4 is the most depressing thing to have happened in Canadian mining since the Bre-X Minerals debacle in 1997. It’s the worst tailings dam failure tied to a Canadian company since the Los Frailes disaster in Spain in 1998 (5 million cubic metres spilled) and the Omai spill in Guyana in 1995 (2.3 million cubic metres spilled).
It’s about as big a tailings dam failure as you can get: some 15 million cubic metres of tailings muck has so far flowed out of the mine’s tailings-impoundment area through a gaping hole in an obliterated eastern portion of a huge dam wall.
To see the jaw-dropping scale of the devastation, watch the full video of a helicopter survey of the affected area at http://youtu.be/M1YgX2jXnpA, posted by the Cariboo Regional District authority. The video takes 37 minutes, because the affected area is so huge: the massive tailings facility itself, Polley Lake immediately to the east and the deeply messed-up Hazeltine Creek, which empties into the western reaches of the formerly pristine Quesnel Lake, where there are critical salmon-spawning grounds.
In the video, huge amounts of material is actively flowing out of the tailings facility in great, muddy torrents into Hazeltine Creek. Have you ever seen a waterfall of mine tailings? It’s here in this video, in the middle of Hazeltine Creek — a formerly 1-metre wide trickle of wending water that is now a scoured-out 45 metres wide.
The trees that were ripped out from either side of the creek, along with many tonnes of tailings, have been dumped at the creek’s mouth into Quesnel Lake. The whole tailings area looks abandoned in the video, with the only people visible being a few stunned civilians in boats or on the shores of Quesnel Lake.
Quesnel Lake flows to the northwest into the Quesnel River, which continues westward to the town of Quesnel, where it empties into the mighty Fraser River, 80 km northwest of the Mount Polley mine.
Mount Polley had been on track to produce 47,000 oz. gold, 44 million lb. copper and 120,000 oz. silver this year, but is now closed, and will likely remain so for at least the rest of the year. The mine cannot reopen until the current tailings facility is completely rebuilt or a new one is created next door. Considering that the mine was already running out of space to put its tailings, and there are no obvious quick fixes, the mine will not reopen anytime soon. The mine was slated to close in 2016, but Imperial had been working this year to extend the mine’s life to 2023 by going underground.
A more pertinent question is whether Imperial will even survive this setback in its current corporate form, as it gets caught in a three-way crunch: disaster costs at Mount Polley rising into the hundreds of millions; a loss of cash flow from Mount Polley; and the continuing cash drain of completing the construction of its wholly owned Red Chris copper–gold mine in northwest B.C.
But what makes all this particularly depressing is that Imperial Metals is one of the class acts of Canadian mining, and the mine was built by highly skilled Canadian miners to modern technical standards in our own backyard. And the tailings were flowing uncontrolled through the breach on a beautiful sunny summer day, not after some catastrophic tsunami or once-a-century storm or flood.
And all that Imperial — representing the very best in Canadian mining — could come up was this on the day of the disaster: “The cause of the breach is unknown at this time. The dam . . . operated within design limits and specifications. Monitoring instruments and on-site personnel had no indication of an impending breach.”
In other words, “We ain’t got a clue, folks.”
The meeting the next day between Imperial president Brian Kynoch and affected residents in Likely, B.C., had its moment of dark comedy, too, when a feckless Kynoch told worried residents that of course he would drink the water from the tailings facility, “once the solids come out.” It’s about as meaningful as saying that of course you’d play Russian roulette — once the bullets are taken out of the gun.