Spill damage likely permanent: researcher
A view of the tailings pond beach from the air. (REUTERS)
The massive release of materials from a mine tailings pond near Quesnel, B.C. is “virtually impossible to clean up,” according to a marine researcher — and may have already damaged salmon habitat beyond repair.
Dr. Peter Ross heads Vancouver Aquarium’s ocean pollution research program and said on Wednesday the spill likely spells death for the fish that use the affected waterways.
“That means, sudden, lethal injury to any fish or their feed ... we expect that to be occurring now,” he said, referring to a large “pulse of toxic materials” washing downstream that heralds environmental impact to come.
Then comes the longer-term impact of silt and debris suffocating fish and their habitats.
“There have been cases where we’ve seen breaches of dams in the past that have filled in, essentially buried the gravel where different species of sockeye will spawn, and we’ve not seen a recovery,” Ross said.
Finally, anything that doesn’t get washed down can stay in riverbeds and be consumed by wildlife for generations to come.
According to Fisheries and Oceans Canada, which has banned fishing in affected waters, 1.52 million sockeye are expected to return to the Quesnel area this year.
Across B.C., the forecast run is about 23 million sockeye.
B.C. government, meanwhile, said Wednesday it’s ordered Imperial Metals Ltd. to stop the breach, prepare an impact assessment report, and provide weekly updates.
The Ministry of Environment said the water flow is plugged at Polley Lake by a dam created from debris — rising water and the danger of instability, meanwhile, have prevented the ministry from collecting sediment samples.
The ministry said water samples are being collected with results expected Thursday.
Energy and Mines Minister Bill Bennett said an investigation is underway that would interview current and former employees at the Mount Polley mine.
He said the mine operator was warned once in May 2014 of rising levels at its tailings pond, but came into compliance afterwards by moving water into an empty pit.
“The company has indicated they’re confident the levels of metals in the tailings are safe,” Bennett said.
“We obviously hope that they’re correct about that.”