A Dispatch from the Mount Polley Mine Disaster by Watershed Watch Ecologist, Aaron Hill

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Mount Polley open house & science presentation, UNBCIt’s been over 2 months now since the catastrophic failure of the tailings impoundment at the Mt. Polley mine sent 25 billion litres of water and toxic tailings into Polley Lake, Hazeltine Creek, and Quesnel Lake. But it has only been a few days now since safety concerns over the stability of the debris pile blocking the outlet of Polley Lake have abated enough to allow access to the heart of impact zone. Last weekend I attended an open house at the University of Northern BC’s Quesnel River Research Centre in Likely, BC, to hear what the researchers have found in their efforts to understand the impact of the disaster. Afterwards I tagged along with some of them on a reconnaissance trip into the heart of the devastated area.

There really is no good place to unleash an epic industrial catastrophe on a watershed and the people who call it home, but it is particularly scary that it happened in the Quesnel River and Lake ecosystem — one of BC’s salmon-producing powerhouses, and a total jewel of a watershed. But there are a few glimmers of light in this nightmare, and one of them is that it is unfolding on the doorstep of the QRRC, a top-notch freshwater science research group based about as close to Ground Zero as you’d want to get. Not only did the research centre have years of baseline data from the affected water bodies prior to the disaster, they were on the water while the torrent was still raging out of the mine, taking samples and instrument readings. They’re still at it, and they will be for years to come.

The open house was attended by a wide range of folks including miners, First Nations and local government reps, concerned residents who are afraid to drink their tapwater, and out-of-towners like me. QRRC manager Sam Albers, and Drs. Ellen Petticrew and Phil Owens from UNBC explained what they’ve found so far on the lake and river. They have a lot of samples left to analyze, and a lot of data yet to process, but a general picture is starting to emerge about where the tailings are going and what’s in them.

Outlet of Quesnel LakeThe tailings contained a massive amount of very fine clay-sized sediments, and because they’re so fine, they’re taking a long time to settle out of the water. By taking samples and readings at multiple depths along Quesnel Lake, the QRRC team were able to track the plume as it spread both up and down the Lake from the mouth of Hazeltine Creek. A massive amount of sediment appears to have already been flushed out into the Quesnel River, and on into the Fraser, but a massive amount is still spreading out in both directions from the mouth of Hazeltine Creek, with two distinct plumes–one just below the surface, and one near the bottom. The outlet of Quesnel Lake and the Quesnel River are a rich aquamarine green colour. On a glacial or alpine waterbody, that gorgeous green colour would be perfectly normal, but this interior lake/river complex normally runs clear this time of year, and the green colour is from all of the metal-laden sediments. The researchers are finding that the sediments are settling out along the river, as we would expect, and in gravel beds that salmon lay their tiny eggs in.

The very small size of the sediments causes them to settle out of the water very slowly, but it also means that they have very high surface area for the toxic metal molecules to bond to. Indeed, the QRRC folks are finding similar results to the analyses being done by the provincial government–elevated levels of toxic metals like Copper, Manganese, Arsenic, and Aluminum that in several samples did not meet official standards for drinking water or aquatic life.

Hazeltine Creek moonscapeIt is still too early to know what this all means in the long term for the millions of juvenile salmon spending their first year of life in Quesnel Lake, other fish populations, wildlife, and the people who depend on them. For example, no one is sure yet if the toxic metals will stay bound to the sediments after they settle out or whether they will flux into solution as they enter the low-oxygen environment of the lake bottom. And thousands of tonnes of tailings have yet to be flushed out of Polley Lake and the erie, muddy moonscape of mine tailings surrounding what used to be Hazeltine Creek. The QRRC team is also analyzing zooplankton in the lake (the things that the millions of baby salmon feed on) to see how much toxicity is finding its way into the food web. Researchers from other universities, First Nations, and Fisheries and Oceans Canada are also looking at impacts to various components of the food web.

And I’ve only written about Quesnel Lake and River: The researchers have only JUST been allowed on to Hazeltine Creek and Polley Lake, which is still being pumped out into the creek since it received the brunt of the spill, raising its level several metres. The devastation in these areas
is immense, and seeing it first hand was surreal. Just look at the pictures.

Pumps moving water from Polley Lake to Hazeltine CreekSo many questions remain. What is the toxicity of the tailings sludge surrounding Hazeltine Creek and how will it affect the wildlife? Will Imperial metals attempt to remove it faster than successive autumn rains and spring snow melts can flush it out into Quesnel Lake? Will Imperial Metals even stay solvent long enough to do all of the mitigation work that needs to be done? When will the Environmental Impact Statement that Imperial Metals was required to complete be released to the public? What will become of the miners who are losing their jobs and the local tourism operators who are losing their shirts?

Stepping back and looking at the bigger picture, even more questions await answers. Like, how did this happen, who is responsible, and how can we make sure it will never happen again?

We’re looking forward to the results of both the criminal investigation and the panel inquiry being conducted by the province, and more research results from hard working independent scientists like the crew at the QRRC. If you want to help them cover the costs of things like boat gas and lab work to analyze water and sediment samples, or if you want to help us keep tracking the situation as it unfolds, you can make a donation online and designate “Mount Polley Mine Spill – Independent Sampling” as how you would like to apply your donation.

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For more images see our Facebook album Dispatch from the Mount Polley Mine Disaster.

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