All photos via Alexandra Morton.
British Columbia says there's nothing to fear about the mysterious, blue, waxy sheen floating on the lake below the mine tailings disaster. You know, the one that spilled 14.5 million cubic metres of toxin-laden mining waste slurry into the river system on Aug 4.
“It was poked with a stick,” an environment ministry spokeswoman told reporters on Aug. 22, and it was declared likely “organic.”
But local residents and a marine biologist say the still-unknown bluish-green film burned their skin like a jellyfish sting.
The substance appeared in the weeks since the collapse of a massive dirt dam holding back Imperial Metals Corp.'s toxin-filled copper mine tailings. The disaster flooded local Hazeltine Creek with a sludgy torrent of 10 million cubic metres of tailings water and 4.5 million cubic metres of sediment.
Driven by skepticism after government tests repeatedly declared the lake water safe to drink and local fish edible, marine biologist Alexandra Morton traveled to ground zero of the accident with her own sample kit and research equipment.
There, local residents alerted her to something amiss floating on their supposedly “drinkable” lake water.
“There's a number of residents in the area who were concerned about it because they had touched it and it caused a drying sensation on their arms and it burned their fingers,” Morton said. “In transferring it from my net to my jars, I got it on my fingers—and it does burn.
“It feels like a jellyfish sting. It looks like oil, but it breaks up. It kind of acts like hot wax put on water; it forms this stiff film.”
Marine biologist, Alexandra Morton.
Morton, who holds an honourary PhD in science from Simon Fraser University and a bachelor of science from American University, took her sealed sample jar to a laboratory in Vancouver to be analyzed.
“When we got there the jar was clear," she said. “You couldn't see this blue film anymore. But when you opened the jar, there was a hiss of escaping steam. So whatever it was had gone into a gas form.”
She also reported the substance to an official with the Interior Health Authority, who replied with this message:
“Thank you again for alerting us about the blue film that you are observing on Quesnel Lake,” wrote regional director of health protection, Roger Parsonage, on Aug. 19. “ I would appreciate whatever assistance you can provide in getting this message to people who have suffered health effects from exposure to this substance. If possible, see their healthcare provider for a diagnosis.”
In a conference call Aug. 22, environment minister Mary Polak downplayed any health risks from contact with the sheen.
According to an environment ministry memo dated Aug. 21 and addressed to the assistant deputy minister of the Environmental Protection Division, government researchers found the substance in an area of Quesnel Lake covered in floating woody debris carried down from the dam collapse.
“Upon visual inspection of the blue sheen, the sheen was poked with a stick to determine if natural or related to petroleum spills,” wrote Deborah Epps, the ministry's section head for provincial water quality. “The sheen broke apart and did not flow back together. This is indicative of plant or animal decomposition. If the sheen swirls immediately back together, it is from petroleum.”
The letter says there was no odour, but did not mention whether it had tested for burning or stinging effects on skin. Epps said a sample was sent to a laboratory and tested for lignins and tannins, which would indicate plant origins. The results found that the levels were “below the drinking water guideline.”
“Based on the field observations and lab results, the blue sheen is a result of the decaying vegetation/trees in the lake due to the tailings breach and does not impact human health at this time,” she concluded.
Nonetheless, Morton questioned the government's nothing-to-see-here response to what has been called the worst tailings pond disaster in Canadian history. Should authorities be so quick to rule out the possibility that the waxy, burning sheen might be related to toxins released with the disaster?
“They might be right, but here's the thing,” she quipped. “The people of Likely, the town below this, don't believe the government. They're not drinking the water.”
In addition to the blue mystery film, Morton investigated the area where once the tiny Hazeltine Creek flowed downstream of Mount Polley mine. Now, she said, the creek-formerly-known-as-Hazeltine has been transformed into a giant mud hole many times wider than the original stream—one covered in bear, moose, deer, and bird tracks.
“I walked up to what was Hazeltine Creek and is now this canyon of toxic waste,” she recalled. “It's all shades of grey, there's grey water coming down. It burns your eyes, it burns your sinuses and your lungs.”
According to Environment Canada's National Pollutant Release Index (NPRI), Imperial Metals reported that since the mine opened it had pumped into it at least 406 tonnes of the deadly poison arsenic, 475 tonnes of the heavy metal cobalt, 46 tonnes of selenium and three tonnes of the neurotoxin mercury, among a basket of other toxic heavy metals.
However, after conducting a series of its own tests—through an independent laboratory, officials said—health authorities announced water in most areas of Quesnel Lake and fish were within the safety guidelines for human consumption.
That, despite tests of whitefish, lake, and rainbow trout that showed increased levels of a number of toxins present in the mine tailings, including selenium levels that exceeded the guidelines in fish livers and gonads. In high doses, selenium can worsen the risk of skin cancer and heart problems, but apparently you'd have to eat a whole cup of gonads and livers to worry.
Fish flesh also had higher-than-normal concentrations of arsenic, copper, zinc and manganese—but according to authorities, still within the consumption guidelines.
“These results are to be expected for fish from Quesnel and Polley lakes,” minister Polak declared. “The flesh of the fish remains safe to eat.”
Morton and other critics have another explanation. In the face of a massive failure in one of BC's major revenue-generating industries—mining—the current business-friendly provincial government wants to “downplay” the scope of the disaster.
“They didn't want people to panic,” Morton alleges. “They didn't want the stocks of this company to crash. That's what they're protecting.”
It’s interesting to note that Imperial Metals Corp. donated nearly $234,000 to the BC Liberal Party since 2003, including $3,000 for the election campaign of the current Minister of Mines Bill Bennett, who compared the incident to an avalanche.
Also of interest is the fact that the company's majority shareholder (and Calgary Flames owner) Murray Edwards, Canada's 18th richest person, held a private million-dollar fundraiser for Premier Christy Clark in late 2012.
Likewise, AMEC—the engineering firm that was in the process of heightening the Mount Polley tailings dam after the original engineers distanced themselves from its design—donated $221,010 to the BC Liberals since 2000.
Suspicious political contributions aside, the health concerns are very real and present. Morton fears the toxic sediment from Mount Polley that has settled to the bottom of the lakes will affect the millions of wild Pacific salmon currently swimming upstream from the sea, about a quarter of them destined for Quesnel Lake, she said. She lowered a GoPro camera and a sample-collecting device into the lake, and it turned up a cloud of fine, silt-like solids.
“This sediment is so fine that it's going to resuspend itself into the water for generations,” she warned. “It will probably be thousands of years before this thing is all washed down into the Strait of Georgia. This company has to clean it up."