A serious industry and regulatory failure resulted in a massive poison tailings spill from the Mt. Polly gold and silver mine in BC into the headwaters of the Fraser River watershed this past week.
Fraser River salmon runs are significant and important to many:
About 1.5 to 2 million sockeye salmon, from the great Fraser River fishery shared by the U.S. and Canada, are headed for spawning beds in the Quesnel Lake region of British Columbia this summer, where they will run into a major mine disaster.
The Monday breach of a tailings dam at the Mount Polley mine has dumped millions of liters of mine waste, with islands of debris already floating in Quesnel Lake.
The Quesnel-Horsefly river system is one of the mighty Fraser’s four largest salmon producing tributaries. An estimated 500,000 salmon are already headed up the Fraser River, with the rest expected in the river by the end of August.
The exact concentration of pollutants they will encounter from Monday’s disaster is not known. What is known, from Imperial Mines records, is witches brew of toxic tailings in the pond: Phosphorus, copper, Zinc, cobalt, selenium, arsenic, lead, cadmium, and mercury...
“This area upstream from the Fraser River is a major spawning ground for salmon, both of which are integral to indigenous peoples’ culture and way of life,” Jody Wilson-Raybound, regional chief for the Aboriginal First Nations, said in a statement.
The Mount Polley mine is in the Cariboo region of central British Columbia. Already, regional authorities have told humans not to use water from Quesnel Lake, Caribou Creek and the entire Quesnel and Cariboo River systems down to the Fraser River.
Damages may be permanent according to a Vancouver researcher.
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...
Alaska and BC have the last best wild salmon runs on the planet, but if industry and government aligned with industry has its way, the future of these healthy watersheds and wild salmon runs are bleak.
The Red Chris mine is the next one ready to progress in BC. It's location is in the headwaters of the pristine Iskut-Stikine watershed. Bloomberg reports:
Imperial Metals Corp., the owner of a British Columbia mine where a burst dam unleashed a torrent of mine waste last week, said it doesn’t see any sign that the accident will delay the startup of another mine it’s developing in the province.
Imperial is trying to stem the leak from a pond at its Mount Polley mine after the Aug. 4 spill that released an estimated 10 million cubic meters (2.64 billion gallons) of water and 4.5 million cubic meters of ground-up rock. British Columbia investigators are working with the company to find the cause of the breach, while local residents still can’t drink or bathe in water from the area, pending further tests...
Besides the Stikine (exiting Wrangell/Petersburg), the Unuk (upstream of Misty Fjords near Ketchikan) the Taku (near Juneau), the Chilkat (Haines), the Kuskowim (Bethel), the Kobuk (villages of Kobuk, Shungnak, Ambler and Kiana), and Bristol Bay in Alaska, have huge mine projects pending. Many of these mines are trans-boundary (Iskut-Stikine, Unuk, Taku, Chilkat) which originate in BC and flow into Alaskan waters.
To keep these large mines out of the headwaters of salmon-bearing rivers in the future is going to require coordinated effort among many entities in both US and Canada.
Damages on our watch are unacceptable. Risks are unacceptable. We have to stop swallowing the snake-oil of "If the project is done right, there will be no negative impacts."
The truth is, there are always negative impacts. Each of us must do our part to speak up again and again, as needed, to just say no to large mines in the headwaters of the last best salmon producing watersheds on the planet.