Is Canada's massive mine waste spill a sign of things to come?


From behind a screen of trees, it comes as a dull roar: A gray churn of water and debris that overtops roads, snaps trunks, carves chunks of earth from banks as if they were butter. It looks like a flash flood, something you’d see coursing from the mouth of a redrock wash in Utah, a desert arroyo in New Mexico. But this is central British Columbia, with plenty of vegetation and porous soil to catch and slow rain.

Rise into the air in a helicopter, though, and the source creeps into view: A massive earthen-walled pond full of waste from the adjacent Mount Polley copper and gold strip mine, operated by Imperial Metals. The containment dam is rent by a steep new canyon where, sometime in the dark morning hours of August 4, a viscous slurry of pulverized rock vomited free across the dark conifer forest into adjacent Polley Lake and roared down Hazeltine Creek, widening it from 4 feet to 150 in places, before settling in Quesnal Lake.

All told, some 2.6 billion gallons of water and 5.9 million cubic yards of potentially toxic silt escaped. Combined, that’s nearly three times as much waste as flowed from a Tennessee Valley Authority coal ash containment pond near Knoxville in a now (in)famous 2008 disaster that buried hundreds of acres, destroyed a handful of homes, mucked up the Emory River, and cost over a billion dollars to clean up.

Though preliminary water quality tests came back within the safe range, officials continue to advise residents of Likely, BC, population 300, and the surrounding area not to drink, swim or bathe in it until further testing is conducted, necessitating the delivery of nearly 20,000 bottles of water. And given that the tailings held in the pond were known to contain hundreds of thousands of pounds of heavy metals including arsenic, lead and cadmium, concerns remain for local residents, as well as for wildlife that may consume or be exposed to the metals – particularly the region’s salmon.