Arsenic, lead, and selenium are likely in the toxic waste water that rushed into waterways in central B.C. after a mine tailings pond was breached early Monday. People who live in the area are under a total water ban.
At least five million cubic metres of waste water from the Mount Polley copper and gold mine was released into the Cariboo Regional District's Hazeltine Creek. That's about the same amount of water as 2,000 Olympic-sized swimming pools.
"This is a serious incident that should not have happened," said B.C. Environment Minister Bill Bennett in a statement Tuesday. "We are devoting every appropriate resource working with local officials to clean up the site, mitigate any impacts to communities and the environment, and investigate the cause of the breach."
Vancouver-based Imperial Metals, which runs the mine, said the damaged area is relatively small compared to the overall size of the dam.
About 300 residents in the sparsely populated area are being told not to drink or bathe in the water from the Quesnel and Cariboo river systems, up to the salmon-bearing Fraser River. It includes Quesnel Lake, Polley Lake, Hazeltine Creek, and Cariboo Creek. Pets and livestock should also not drink the water.
The precautionary water use ban does not apply to people in Williams Lake or other towns along the Fraser River.
Local residents called the waste water release an environmental disaster, reported CBC News.
"This spill is incredibly toxic," Mark Angelo, who founded the Rivers Day event, told Global News. "[When] you’re talking [about] a slurry like this that’s released from those tailings pond, you’re talking about a lot of heavy metals — maybe other toxic materials like arsenic that’s going to find its way into an assortment of creeks, rivers and perhaps ultimately the Fraser."
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Canada's National Pollutant Release Inventory shows Imperial Metals disposing of arsenic, lead, and mercury, among other chemicals, as mining byproducts at Mount Polley last year.
The company, which also operates a gold mine in Nevada, said the tailings discharge has stabilized, but the cause of the breach and the exact quantity of discharge has yet to be determined.
"Our first priority is the health and safety of our employees and neighbours, and we are relieved no loss of life or injury have been reported," said a statement from Imperial Mines on Tuesday. "We are deeply concerned and are working to mitigate immediate effects and understand the cause."
The company also said, "Monitoring instruments and onsite personnel had no indication of an impending breach."
But Brian Olding, an environmental consultant who examined the Mount Polley mine tailings pond, says the storage facility was growing at an unsustainable rate.
He says Imperial Metals was building the walls of the storage dam higher and higher to hold back the contaminated water, and was seeking a permit to treat and release some of the water to keep the size of the pond in check.
Matt McCracken, who owns Morehead Lake Cabins and Campsite near Lively, roughly 14 kilometres away from the mine, told News 1130 that residents are feeling uneasy.
"None of the environmental studies and government officials have actually said what’s actually happened, the quality of the water, the quality of the economic spinoffs are very, very big, so that’s gonna hurt people," he said. "People don’t have a job possibly. I know that a lot of the miners here, they were sent home."
The incident pushed Imperial Metal's stock down 44 per cent to its lowest level in two years, reported The Globe and Mail.
With files from The Canadian Press