On February 3, law enforcement raided the headquarters of Imperial Metals, the mining company responsible for a massive mining waste spill in British Columbia's central interior. The search could potentially lead to millions of dollars in fines and even jail time.
By volume Imperial Metals' Mount Polley spill ranks among the largest mining leaks in the world. A tailings pond dam holding back 25 million cubic metres of waste collapsed on August 4, 2014, sending an avalanche of toxic sludge containing lead, mercury, arsenic, and selenium into salmon-bearing waterways.
Six months later, more than 70 officials executed search warrants at Imperial Metals' Mount Polley and Vancouver offices, as well as the offices of two engineering firms involved in the dam's design and maintenance. Tuesday's search and seizure collected evidence for a joint investigation by RCMP, Environment Canada, Fisheries and Oceans Canada, and BC's Conservation Officer Services.
Inspector Chris Doyle said the conservation agency is leading the inquiry. "The RCMP is part of the investigative team, and ultimately the team as a whole will submit to provincial and federal Crown Counsel," he said. It's then up to the crown to press charges.
In the same week, Mount Polley's sister mine Red Chris received a temporary permit to start mining copper and gold despite ongoing concerns raised by some members of the Tahltan First Nation. The Red Chris wastewater pond is designed by AMEC, one of the companies raided by conservation services. AMEC took over as the engineer of record at Mount Polley in 2011, and until recent months was also the engineer of record at Red Chris.
That permit goes against the findings of an engineering review panel, released last week, that recommended new mines move toward "best available technologies" like "dry-stack" or "filtered" tailings rather than sludgy wastewater ponds.
The review found design flaws were the root cause of the Mount Polley disaster. Authors pointed to unstable glacial soil underneath the tailings pond and the dam's steeply sloped walls as contributing factors to the spill. In a press conference last week, review chair Norbert Morgenstern explained that if building on an unstable glacial lake deposit was the "loaded gun," then building up the dam walls at a steep incline "pulled the trigger."
The BC government announced it would require all mines to determine the stability of "foundation materials" by June 30 to ensure the disaster is not repeated.
An independent review of Red Chris, requested by the Tahltan First Nation and paid for by Imperial Metals in October, found there's 90 metres of sandy glacial deposits under the newly-opened mine. "A major design issue for the tailings impoundments is the high permeability of the foundation soils," reads the report, carried out by the engineering firm Klohn Crippen Berger and released in November 2014.
At the time, the Mount Polley review wasn't yet completed. "Any technical lessons to be learned from Mount Polley cannot be applied to this facility because the forensic investigation into the cause of that failure has not yet been completed," the Red Chris report read.
I asked Morgenstern if he thinks Red Chris is using the "best available technology" his review recommends. He replied: "I have not evaluated anything at Red Chris and I am not able to comment on their design or operations."
Despite his use of a loaded gun metaphor, Morgenstern's review does not aim to demonstrate criminal or civil culpability. The report maintains employees and government mine inspectors did nothing wrong; it concludes there was no way the spill could have been predicted or prevented. Whereas last week's review panel took an unnecessary amount of care not to blame anyone, the conservation services' inquiry has the power to bring about criminal charges and punishment.
Doyle declined to offer details about the investigation's direction, or to specify whether criminal charges would be sought. He added that releasing information could compromise the investigation. "The primary focus is on BC's Environmental Management Act and the federal Fisheries Act," he said, "but it's not limited to those acts."
While these might seem like boring or bureaucratic pieces of legislation, the two acts pack a surprising punch. If a company or individual is found deliberately harming the environment, or through recklessness puts the safety of others at risk, the Environmental Management Act calls for a maximum fine of $3 million, or three years' jail time, or both. The Fisheries Act can fine a corporation the size of Imperial Metals up to $6 million for an indictable offense, or two years imprisonment, or both.
Fines are usually much lower, of course, but a recent record-breaking case may hint at what could happen to Imperial Metals in years to come. On December 22, following a three-year investigation, a Montreal-based mining company was charged $7.5 million in fines for environmental violations under the Fisheries Act relating to a much smaller tailings pond breach. Scaling the ruling up to Mount Polley proportions, it would amount to nearly a billion in fines.
Reached while on location at Red Chris, Imperial Metals VP corporate affairs Steve Robertson declined comment on the raid's impact on operations.
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