A Disaster in the First Person: Mt. Polley As Seen from Ground Zero

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The Mount Polley mine disaster
by Rod Marining - Common Ground
Marining PolleyOn BC Day, a holiday meant to celebrate beautiful BC, we were all having a beautiful time at the family cabin at Quesnel Lake, with hot sun, blue skies and a pristine lake.

That night, I slept on my new boat docked in front of the cabin and was awakened at 3:00 AM by a continuous roar – like a 747 jet was flying towards the town of Likely.
I thought the sound odd and then noticed the boat was rocking when just a minute before Quesnel Lake had been as smooth as glass. I knew that Polley Mine was only a few miles away, but I just returned to bed puzzled by the strange, distant noise.

In the morning, life continued as normal. I swam in the lake and drank out of it. Everyone went swimming, including the young children. We were unaware that the tailing pond had burst and had sent a torrent of 10 billion litres of water and 4.5 million cubic metres of toxic silt into Quesnel Lake, just four kilometres away.

Later that evening, we left the cabin and headed home to Williams Lake. Entering the realm of cellphones, TV and radio coverage, I found out that I, and numerous others – including young children – had been swimming in and drinking water from Quesnel Lake where there was now toxic sludge laced with arsenic, mercury and cyanide, etc. We were in shock trying to fathom the consequences.

I was mad as hell that people couldn’t swim in or drink water from Quesnel Lake, an incredible lake that was no longer pristine and which would forever be tainted by this historic event. I was now caught up in a political madness wanting to know why and how it had happened.

A few days later, we headed back to the cabin to pull the boats out of the water; the debris was defying logic by travelling up the lake and could punch holes in boats. I asked one of the family members who had stayed at the cabin, “Has anyone been around to tell you the tailing pond had burst and that there is a state of emergency declared by the regional district? He responded, “Nobody, not even the RCMP has been around to warn us not to go into the lake.”

There was obviously no Emergency Management Plan to inform the public and the people at the 100+ cabins and six resorts on the lake. Unless you travelled an hour by car or boat toward the town of Horsefly or Likely, you would never know you were in a disaster zone.

“In the aftermath of the dam failure, concerns are being raised about what the government knew about the condition of the Mount Polley mine and whether the public should have been notified of potential risks before the disaster occurred,” Privacy Commissioner Elizabeth Denham said in a news release.

Denham noted the Freedom of Information and Privacy Protection Act imposes legal requirements on public bodies to provide people with timely information where there is a significant risk of harm or where information is in the public interest.

Christy Clark called a press conference at the same place as a First Nations gathering. Three days later on August 7, I was sitting in the town of Likely, BC, near Quesnel Lake. We were there for a native gathering and a subsequent government press conference. The First Nations leaders were going around to the 300 locals, placing streaks of charcoal on the faces of everyone. It was a mourning ceremony. We were in mourning for Quesnel Lake and Polley Lake. After the ceremony, I headed to the restaurant.

After the ceremony, at the restaurant in Likely in walked Christy Clark.

“Could you please tell me where the washroom is?” Christy asked a young girl. 

The restaurant girl gave her routine speech:

“You have to use the outhouse, we have no water.” Christy looked puzzled. 
“The outhouse is across the street,” pointed the young lady, not recognizing who she had just talked to. 

Christy Clark proceeded to leave the restaurant, then spied John Horgan, leader of the NDP opposition party. Hogan was also standing in a five-deep line for the outhouse. She stopped, then changed direction.

Numerous people had entered the restaurant looking for a bathroom, all getting the same answer, all unaware of the ramifications from this disaster. Christy, whose government had ordered the water ban, forgot for a moment that there was a water ban in effect.

The Mount Polley tailing pond is not a pond. It is a huge 16-square kilometre reservoir, more than 14 stories high. Its purpose is to contain the huge list of chemicals and contaminants, left over from the mining operation.

List of contaminants, according to Environment Canada:

Last year, Imperial Metals Corp. reported that tailings from its Mount Polley copper-gold mine contained thousands of tonnes of zinc, phosphorus and manganese along with 138 tonnes of cobalt, 326 tonnes of antimony, 400,000 kilograms of arsenic,177,000 kilograms of lead, 8,695 kilograms of selenium, 7464 kilograms of mercury, 995 kilograms of cadmium, 18,400 tonnes of copper.

A science and policy advisor for the David Suzuki Foundation says that the most hazardous heavy metals to human and environmental health are arsenic, cadmium, copper, lead and mercury.

“Environment Canada’s data on Imperial Metal’s mine tailings show mercury compounds, a neurotoxin that can cause degenerative disease, ramped up from 435 kilograms in 2012 to 3,114 kg last year – a seven-fold increase in one year.”

Wildlife vectors spread contaminants

The 2.3 million sockeye salmon now passing Likely, BC, will pick up contaminants as they head to their spawning grounds. The contaminants will collect in their gills before they swim up Quesnel lake to the Horsefly and Mitchell Rivers to spawn. These salmon are carrying some of the one million pounds of arsenic, mercury, cadmium in their gills. All the creatures that eat the salmon after they spawn will be contaminated. Who would have thought salmon, bears and eagles could be a vector for the spread of poisons? Another ramification I never thought of.

The Mount Polley Mine disaster has and will continue to affect the web of life in BC for generations. Your health, your children’s health and their children’s health could be traced back to the moment Mount Polley Mine burst its tailing reservoir. August 4, when the sacred headwaters of the Fraser River was polluted with deadly chemicals, will go down in BC history. It is a moment in history when the home for one quarter of the Fraser sockeye salmon was desecrated.

The effects of the toxic sludge – with its 30 or so chemicals – that poured into Quesnel Lake will slowly filter out of the sediment with each rain and snow event. It will drift down the Quesnel River and then into the Fraser River. Water from the Fraser River will be used for irrigation and the hay fields, the grapevines and the blueberries will be irrigated with arsenic, mercury, cadmium, lead etc. The toxic soup of chemicals will enter into the bloodstream of fish and wildlife and this poison will slowly be deposited into each and every human in BC. At first, it will be in small amounts but it will bio-accumulate in your body.

That is why we should all know what happened at the Mount Polley mine site. This event has far reaching ramifications. One night, you’ll sit down after a hard day’s work and have a nice class of BC wine. Then you will eat your organic blueberries with cream for dessert. Each mouthful will contain a tiny amount of poison that will slowly start to affect your thinking. Your DNA will begin to alter and the effects of this slow poisoning will affect your life and the lives of your offspring.

The sacred headwaters of the Fraser River and Quesnel Lake were once pristine. Researchers came from around the globe to use Quesnel Lake as the baseline for pure water. Your personal health could be one of the victims of this insidious disaster that poisons the land. So it is important to protect what we do have – the sanctity of one’s body and of pristine wilderness. They both go hand in hand.

Our family gathered on that beautiful sunny day to celebrate life and our connection to the land. We are now joining other groups to advocate for the complete clean-up of the Mount Polley Mine. We are launching a class action law suit for the loss and enjoyment of Quesnel Lake. We are being even more vigilant about the foods we eat. Organic food laws must be stronger. Water for irrigation and organic foods now requires heavy metal testing and should be certified. This is the law of ecology; we are all connected in the web of life. We are involved whether we like it or not.

Rod Marining is vice Chair of the BC Environmental Network (www.ecobc.org).

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