WILLIAMS LAKE, B.C. - Four months after a torrent of mine water and waste gushed into two south-central British Columbia lakes, the province says the mine's owner is only at the forefront of a clean-up that is expected to take years.
The B.C. environment ministry released its first progress report Monday into the Mount Polley tailings pond breach, identifying a number of pressing actions that are required to restore the water and land.
Returning the outdoor surroundings to their original state will take years, not months, said Environment Minister Mary Polak as she laid out the long-term goal the government has set for Imperial Metals Corp.
"This is the very, very beginning. And it's not to downplay the efforts that have been made by Mount Polley," Polak said in a conference call with reporters.
"But the scale of the initial disaster is tremendous. We are at the very beginnings of this. It is going to take a long time."
The now-closed gold and copper mine is located about 600 kilometres northeast of Vancouver, near the town of Likely, in the province's Cariboo region.
Polak said she has recently toured the area, and already observed big efforts involving the installation of a stone dyke and "shear amount of earth" that has been moved to address the breach along Hazeltine Creek.
The dam burst on Aug. 4, sending a cascade of effluent into a series of salmon-bearing lakes and streams and initially affecting upwards of 300 residents with a water ban. Water quality tests prompted the warning to be rescinded in the days after the dam burst.
Imperial Metals has reported to the government that about 17 million cubic meters of water and eight million cubic meters of tailings materials discharged into Polley Lake and Quesnel Lake, a substantial increase from its original estimates.
The report identifies as a key concern the upcoming spring snow melt, which will boost the water flow that could potentially push additional mine sediment into the lakes.
Hubert Bunce, the Environment Ministry director for Mount Polley, said the system in place now wouldn't be able to handle what may come this spring.
"The company is aggressively looking at their options to repair the breach, that the failed portion of berm, such that it will be able to hold back the freshet flows that would come to it in the spring," he said.
Human health and environmental risk assessments must also be conducted, he said, which involves charting out pathways of potential contaminants for humans or fish.
Polak said she believes the company will deliver on its promises, but said the province hasn't fully handed over trust in the company to do its work without government auditing and a strict call for reporting back.
"We're not shy about telling them when they're deficient and when they have to provide us with further information."
Steve Robertson, vice-president of corporate affairs at Imperial Metals, agrees the company will have years of work ahead of it, especially in the monitoring phase.
The company is considering it's options around re-opening the mine, Robertson said in an email statement.
"We still have 294 workers fully employed at the site doing the recovery and remediation work," he said. About 50 employees have been hired to work offsite on the cleanup and monitoring, he added.
Any application to open the mine again would be fully reviewed by government and outstanding risks would be weighed in the process of making the tough decision, Polak said.
"It's a difficult thing to balance. The communities are very conflicted," she said.
"On the one hand there's certainly an importance that they place above all else on their health and the safety of their environment. But at the same time, you have people that are out of work and they're hurting."
-- By Tamsyn Burgmann in Vancouver
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