THE BLOG

3 Years After The Mount Polley Disaster, Our Waters Are Still In Danger

Three years ago, Mount Polley mine dumped 26 billion liters of waste into Hazelton Creek, Polley Lake and Quesnel Lake.

07/28/2017 13:55 EDT | Updated 07/28/2017 13:55 EDT

For as long as I can remember, the waters of B.C.'s Quesnel Lake played an important role in my community. We fished for trout and swam in its depths, camped along its shores and picked berries and medicines in the surrounding Cariboo Mountains. The entire time, we were sharing our Xat'sull language and culture with our children.

Yet three years ago on Aug. 4, 2014, all of this was endangered when the Mount Polley mine dumped 26 billion liters of mine waste—including mercury, lead and other toxic waste—into Hazelton Creek, Polley Lake and Quesnel Lake. Suddenly the water was no longer safe to use: the mine gave out some ineffective filters for homes on the lake and a paltry supply of canned salmon. We were left reeling from the worst environmental disaster in Canadian history.

Handout/Reuters
The results of a tailing pond breach at Imperial Metals Corp's gold and copper mine at Mount Polley in central British Columbia are pictured August 4, 2014 in this still image from aerial handout video provided by Cariboo Regional District.

This year people across the country will mark the third anniversary of the disaster by hosting water ceremonies near lakes, creeks and coastlines. We want to honour the water that sustains us. And we want to send a clear signal to government leaders that our waters must be protected.

Because it's not just Quesnel Lake that's under threat. A B.C. expert panel says we can expect two major mine disasters every 10 years if we don't strengthen safeguards. But B.C. has done almost nothing to shield our waters and communities.

Instead of becoming a wakeup call, Mount Polley is setting a precedent for Canadian mining companies to act with impunity.

No charges or fines have been laid for the catastrophic dam collapse, even though authorities immediately suspected laws had been broken. Now the clock is running down on the three-year window in which charges can be brought and the B.C. Conservation Officers report has still not been released. There has been no justice.

Mining regulations remain dangerously outdated. B.C.'s auditor general blasted the Ministry of Energy and Mines for failing to protect its citizens in a report published last year. It issued a series of recommendations, yet the government ignored several or only partially accepted them. The new codes, for instance, don't require a safety-first design approach to the kind of tailings storage facilities that burst at Mount Polley. And they remain far too lax when it comes to requiring companies to ensure they can pay for cleanup—something the auditor general's report said was critically important.

Many holes remain in the system that's supposed to keep us safe and hold companies accountable. But that hasn't stopped the province from awarding the Mount Polley mine permit after permit. It allowed Imperial Metals to return to full-scale operations and permanently discharge more wastewater into Quesnel Lake, relying on the lake to dilute the waste in order to meet B.C. water quality limits. Unacceptable!

Irina274 via Getty Images
West Dyke Trail along Fraser River, Richmond, B.C.

A watershed that feeds Fraser River salmon runs and supports countless communities deserves better. All of our watersheds deserve better.

That's why we will be gathering on shorelines this Aug. 4. First Nations Women Advocating for Responsible Mining (FNWARM), Amnesty International, Salmon Beyond Borders, United for Mining Justice, Clayoquot Action, Freshwater Alliance and several other groups are mobilizing people across the country.

We see an opportunity right now: B.C.'s new government has made positive statements about protecting the environment and doing mining right. And provincial mines ministers from across Canada are meeting in New Brunswick in mid-August. We will deliver photos from our water ceremonies to these leaders and call on them to reform the Fisheries Act and strengthen mining regulations.

But first we will show gratitude for our waters. I planned to host a ceremony on the shores of Quesnel Lake, but wildfires swept through our region and we had to evacuate with thousands of others—highlighting our dependence on water to save our homes and lives. I will pray along another vein of the Fraser Watershed on Aug. 4. I will miss Quesnel Lake but I know all waters are connected and that's why we must protect them together.