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Commentary: Mount Polley’s lasting legacy

by Greg Klein | August 7, 2014

The B.C. Day announcement said little: “Imperial Metals Corporation (TSX:III) reports the tailings storage facility at its Mount Polley mine was breached, releasing an undetermined amount of water and tailings in the early morning of August 4. The cause of the breach is unknown at this time.” It was up to the media to report an enormous toxic spill that uprooted trees as it swelled a river system, killing fish on contact just as a million sockeye were approaching. Residents, livestock and wildlife were deprived of water for drinking—or anything else for that matter. Within two days the Cariboo Regional District declared a state of emergency.

Mount Polley’s lasting legacy

As of August 7, Imperial Metals had not
explained how its tailings dam collapsed.

Apart from the environmental devastation which other media are covering thoroughly, there’s the devastation to British Columbia’s resource industries. Northern Miner editor John Cumming called it “the most depressing thing to have happened in Canadian mining since the Bre-X Minerals debacle in 1997.”

Mining Weekly reporter Henry Lazenby remarked on an “already clear and immediate environmental backlash from the incident for other projects in the northwestern Americas.”

The still-unexplained disaster happened in a province that both relies on resource industries and hosts Canada’s most powerful environmental movement. The BC Liberal government claims to support resource industries and has pegged grandiose economic goals on a liquefied natural gas industry that has yet to materialize.

Premier Christy Clark finally visited the scene on August 7 after being goaded by Vancouver Province columnist Michael Smyth. He also took shots at B.C. mining minister Bill Bennett, saying he “at first played down the severity of the spill, issuing a press release saying a mixture of water and ‘fine sand’ gushed into pristine waterways. No mention of icky stuff like arsenic.”

Mount Polley’s lasting legacy

PR Associates publicist Deena Tokaryk
now speaks for
Imperial Metals.

“He also cleverly stressed that government mine inspections have not been reduced ‘in the last five years’—conveniently ignoring cutbacks that took place earlier, when Bennett himself complained that government regulators were ‘starving for resources.’”

The tradition of Canadian governments to order a lengthy inquiry—and then cherry-pick its recommendations—might be considered to restore a measure of confidence. So far at least one retired biologist has called for an inquiry, according to a Vancouver Sun story that was promptly deleted.

But critics say the B.C. government itself has much to hide, with a lack of enforcement from understaffed environmental and mining ministries.

The first talk of a possible class action suit came on August 6 from law firm Sutts, Strosberg. But they propose to act on behalf of Imperial Metals shareholders, not Cariboo residents or other British Columbians. As for those who rely on resources for their income, some of them might be ready to form a lynch mob.

By late afternoon August 7, the miner had retained a public relations firm, PR Associates, that was handling the company’s communications.

Evidently the pros are in charge of damage control. But the damage—environmental and economic—has been done. Imperial Metals may well smear the full range of B.C.’s resource industries with an enduring notoriety worse than that of the Exxon Valdez.

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