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B.C. appoints independent experts to investigate Mount Polley

by Greg Klein | August 18, 2014

An independent review panel has until January 31, 2015, to investigate the Mount Polley mining disaster and make recommendations “to ensure such an incident never happens again.” Announced by British Columbia’s minister of mines Bill Bennett on August 18, the panel consists of three people with dam engineering expertise. Additionally, the province has given all mining companies operating in B.C. until December 1 to conduct tailings facilities inspections which must be reviewed by third-party engineers.

B.C. appoints independent experts to investigate Mount Polley

B.C. mines minister Bill Bennett and his
staff face an investigation themselves
concerning the Mount Polley disaster.

The announcement comes two weeks after the tailings dam collapsed at the central B.C. copper mine, spilling approximately 14.5 million cubic metres of tailings effluent into Polley Lake, which then flowed into Hazeltine Creek and Quesnel Lake, all part of the Fraser River watershed. The B.C. government faced numerous calls for an independent inquiry.

Skepticism of the government’s ability to conduct the investigation itself grew after Knight Piésold, the engineering firm previously responsible for the facility, stated that it relayed to the province serious concerns about the dam in 2011. Last week B.C.’s Information and Privacy Commissioner launched an investigation into “whether government should have notified the public about potential risks” from the Imperial Metals TSX:III operation.

The three-person Mount Polley panel consists of Norbert Morgenstern, an adviser to consulting engineers, Steven Vick, a geotechnical engineer and Dirk Van Zyl, a professor in mining engineering at the University of British Columbia. They’re tasked with examining “geotechnical standards, design of the dam, maintenance, regulations, inspections regimes and other matters the panel deems appropriate.” They hold power to compel evidence. The province may hold Imperial Metals responsible for the inquiry’s costs.

Leaders of two native bands, Soda Creek and Williams Lake, supported the panel and its appointees, according to the ministry statement. Along with the government, the two bands will receive the panel report before it’s made public.

Coinciding with the inspection of tailings facilities for all other B.C. operations, the province’s miners must order a third-party review of their “dam consequence classifications … based on the potential impact to population, the environment, cultural values and infrastructure should it fail.” Those with “high, very high or extreme consequence classifications will be required to have their emergency preparedness and response plans reviewed by an independent third party,” the ministry stated.

The failure of the tailings facility at Mount Polley was a dark day for the mining industry not only here in British Columbia, but worldwide. It’s extremely important for us to understand how this breach happened and why so that we can move forward with the best possible practices in ongoing and future mining operations.—Dirk Van Zyl, UBC professor of mining engineering and a member of the investigation panel

“There are currently 98 permitted tailings impoundments at 60 operating and closed metal and coal mines in B.C.,” the province added.

In a conference call the same day, Imperial president Brian Kynoch said the company has begun a program to collect logs and floating debris on Quesnel Lake, build a dyke to contain tailings still within the facility and pump water out of Polley Lake. But until more progress has been achieved on the last two measures, “it’s not safe to work in the Hazeltine Creek area,” he said.

“The water quality in the impoundment was good, virtually drinking quality,” Kynoch maintained. As for the tailings solids, they’re “non-acid-generating and contain very low levels of most metals. And we’re confident that we will have the financial resources to remediate this over time.” He was unable to provide estimates, however.

“More information on what we have to do will be gathered once we have reduced the water level in Polley Lake and completed the construction of that dyke.”

The Mount Polley mine has been shut down since the August 4 incident.

Read more about the Mount Polley disaster here and here.

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