Bill Bennett, Minister of Energy and Mines, says his government will be making two announcements this week — one on how the BC Liberal government will handle the inquiry into the Mount Polley tailings spill, and two, how the government will deal with tailings ponds throughout the province. Both will have independent elements, he says.
Columbia River Revelstoke MLA Norm Macdonald, the NDP critic for Mines and Energy says an inquiry is definitely in order, but it should be independent of the government. In fact, Macdonald says, the government bears responsibility for the spill because they have cut the number of people who do inspections significantly.
“Inspections at mines have fallen by 50 per cent since 2001,” Macdonald said. “It is a massive failure on the part of government, which is responsible for public safety.
Bennett said the reduction in inspections relates to gravel pits, aggregate producers and placer mines, which process surface gravel for minerals. Annual geotechnical inspections of large mines such as Mount Polley have continued, he said.
Macdonald says that there were numerous warnings that the Mount Polley tailings ponds had a problem.
“Bill Bennett has admitted he knows there was a problem with the tailings pond. The company that originally engineered the tailings ponds indicated that they were beyond capacity and said in a letter they could no longer be responsible for them. In 2009, Mount Polley was asking for the ability to release water.”
Ministry of Environment records show the mine has had an effluent permit since 1997, and has operated since startup with a water surplus due to precipitation. In 2009 the company applied to amend the permit to allow discharge of up to 1.4 million cubic meters of water a year to discharge dam seepage effluent into Hazeltine Creek.
That permit was approved in 2012 after an independent report was commissioned to examine water quality impacts from sediment and contaminants, and measures needed to control them.
With the mine and its tailings facilities expanding and an exhausted pit being converted to underground mining, Mount Polley applied for another amendment to discharge up to three million cubic meters of treated water to Polley Lake.
That permit amendment was being considered at the time of the Aug. 4 tailings dam breach.