Two Years Later, a Look at Mount Polley

On August 4, 2014, a mine waste dam in British Columbia, Canada breached, releasing 24.4 million cubic meters of mine waste (or tailings) sludge into the Fraser River watershed, a group of lakes and rivers that bear salmon and sustain the livelihoods of local First Nation communities.

The disaster should have served as a wakeup call for stronger regulations and scrutiny of an industry that too often remains out of the public spotlight. Unfortunately, far too little has been done to prevent another Mount Polley disaster.

This was clear last November, when another mine waste dam breached in Brazil, flooding the Rio Doce with red sludge — and killing at least 19 people. The Samarco mine is owned by two of the world’s largest mining companies, BHP Billiton and Vale.

Shortly after the Mount Polley accident, a series of mine waste accidents in Mexico polluted rivers and devastated fisheries (see here and here).

Alarmingly, these failures show no sign of slowing down. A study released after the Mount Polley spill last year  concluded that catastrophic mine waste failures are increasing in frequency and severity and will continue to do so until regulators and mining companies take active steps to prevent them.The report, The Risk, Public Liability & Economics of Tailings Storage Facility Failure [PDF], which was released by Bowker Associates Science & Research In The Public Interest and the Center for Science in Public Participation, examined 100 years of tailings dam failures and found an “emerging and pronounced trend” toward more serious failures with greater consequences. The report’s authors argue that new technologies  have allowed companies to mine deposits with increasingly miniscule amounts of metals, thus generating even more waste, and increasing the probability of accidents like the Brazil spill.

Fortunately, there is a safer way to dispose of mine waste.

An independent investigation commissioned by the Canadian government after the Mount Polley spill found that the disaster was caused by a fault in the dam design and predicted that that an estimated two additional tailings dam failures could occur every 10 years in British Columbia if business continues as usual. The expert panel issued a suite of recommendations, including the creation of independent tailings review boards and the fundamental shift to dry tailings storage, in which waste is dewatered, eliminating the need for mammoth dams.

While the province of British Columbia has recently  passed some regulatory measures in response to the Mount Polley panel, critics argue these changes do not go far enough —   especially as BC continues to consider proposed mines that fail to implement the best practices laid out by the Mount Polley panel.

Last year, a number of groups urged  the US government to assess the state of mine waste dams in the US and integrate the Mount Polley panel recommendations into regulation.

Just this week, Earthworks and other organizations called on the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) to address this growing crisis. Mine tailings mismanagement is a global problem that requires a global solution. Along with MiningWatch Canada, Greenpeace Brazil and Niparaja in Mexico — all groups working with communities dealing with the aftermath of mine dam failures — we urge UNEP to conduct a transparent review of tailings dams around the world and establish an oversight body to implement the best practices put forth by the Mount Polley panel.

We can’t afford another Mount Polley ever again – but unless the independent panel’s recommendations are implemented, it is likely that Mount Polley won’t be the last avoidable mining disaster.