In 1948, the Kimberley tailing dam was breached

C. Kirvin and S. Macri were caught in the torrent for a wild ride.

Barry Coulter, Carolyn Grant, and Dave Humphrey

The most active item in the provincial news cycle these days is the breach of the tailings pond at the the Mount Polley gold and copper mine, near Likely, B.C.

On August 4, 2014, a section of the gravel and earth dam collapsed, and millions of cubic metres of water and finely ground up rock containing potentially toxic metals spewed into Hazeltine Creek, Polley Lake and Quesnel Lake. Data is still coming in as to the environmental effects, and any repercussions politically or for the mining industry are yet to be determined

Sixty-six years ago, a remarkably similar event to place in Kimberley, with the breach of the tailing pond for the Sullivan Mine, located above Marysville.

“The C.M.&S. Co. Sullivan Mine has been forced to curtail its operations due to a break in the wall of the tailing pond at the ore mill,” the Cranbrook Courier reported on March 4, 1948.

“Waste products from the mill, contained in the pond, broke the wall and washed out the railway track and power line connecting the mine and the mill. The break was due to the recent thaw, which loosened the frozen sludge, causing it to press against the wall, finally breaking it.”

The incident occurred in the afternoon of Tuesday, March 2, 1948.

The Courier reported that three guards, “whose names are not yet available, barely escaped death when the wall gave way. The three men were on the sludge when the wall collapsed, but managed to jump to safety.”

The flood knocked out power to Kimberley, Chapman Camp and the mine itself.

“Men changing shifts (at the mine) had perforce to walk out of the mine when transportation failed,” the Courier reported.

The March 4 edition added that the operations were expected to resume with the next 36 hours.

One week later, the Courier carried the harrowing tale of two men who were caught in the flood itself, and carried three quarters of a mile downstream, dodging debris, live flailing electrical wire, and, of course, drowning.

“Two local men, C. Kirvin and S. Macri, had a narrow escape from death last Tuesday (March 2, 1948) when the tailing dam above Marysville burst. The men were at work when the rupture occurred, and were carried about three quarters of a mile before they were able to extricate themselves.

“Holding first to pieces of the broken launder (which is used for carrying the tailings from the mill in a liquid state), then to oxidized muck, and finally to huge pieces of ice,  the men managed to work their way to shore.

“At one time Mr. Kirvin was completely submerged and was only able to save himself when two blocks of ice came close to him, enabling him to clamber up between them.

“The men suffered no ill effects from their ordeal. Their greatest danger lay in the fact that they were directly under a power line when it came down, barely escaping the live wires.”

A 2006 article in CIM magazine mentions the incident. “During the early years of concentrator operation, tailings effluent was discharged into Cow Creek. A dyke failure in 1948 resulted in a large volume of tailings filling the creek leaving long-lasting contamination. By the late 1990s, a substantial improvement was achieved. Approximately 318,000 tonnes of tailings and contaminated soil were removed from the creek, and was replaced with clean sand and gravel.”

Today, the tailings ponds are mostly grass covered after clean fill was placed on top of ponds, but still monitored. They stretch from Chapman Camp behind the old Concentrator site to above Marysville.

After almost a century of operations, the Sullivan Mine was closed at the end of 2001, leaving about 94,000,000 tonnes of tailings and 16,900,000 tonnes of mine waste, according to a paper entitled “Closure Of The Sullivan Mine Tailings Facility.”

“Reclamation work on the tailings areas has been ongoing since 1990,” the report says. ”Drainage Water Treatment Plant (DWTP), which began operating in 1979, will continue to operate for the foreseeable future as part of the post-closure water management plan for the site, to treat acid rock drainage produced from the underground mine and waste storage facilities.”

That treatment plant continues to operate today.