On August 4, 2014 an estimated 24 million cubic metres of mining waste and water spilled from the Mount Polley mine tailings pond and flowed down Hazeltine Creek and into Quesnel Lake, a source of drinking water for the town of Likely, BC, and home to an estimated quarter of the province's sockeye salmon.
The volume of contaminated waste escaping the tailings pond was so enormous it took 12 hours to pour into the depths of Quesnel Lake, one of the deepest fjord lakes in the world. The sheer violence of the spill scoured the banks of the Hazeltine of trees which themselves were stripped of their bark and branches. The base of the Hazeltine, where it meets Quesnel Lake, had been transformed from a six foot-wide creek bed to a 150 metre-wide fan of mud and limbless timber.
It was and remains the worst environmental mining disaster in Canadian history.
Although the Mount Polley Mining Corporation, owned by Imperial Metals, has since spent an estimated $67 million on cleanup efforts to remediate Hazeltine Creek, none of the material — containing mercury, copper, arsenic, selenium, and other heavy metals — that made its way into Quesnel Lake has since been recovered.
According to Sam Albers, manager of the Max Blouw Quesnel River Research Centre in Likely, this "massive deposit" of mining waste lurking on the bottom of the lake has him worried.
Albers recently co-published a paper in Geophysical Research Letters that estimated the waste deposit is over 600 metres long, one to three metres deep and a kilometre wide. That's roughly the size of six Manhattan-style city blocks or the equivalent of about 23 Olympic sized swimming pools.
Yet Albers said that estimate was based on information his team initially received from the mine's consultants in meetings soon after the spill took place. It wasn't until the province released the Post-Event Environmental Impact Assessment Report last month that Albers realized the deposit was substantially bigger.
"It's a 2,000 page report," he said, "so it's death by overload of information. But there's one section by Tetra Tech EBA and the information about the extent of this deposit is in there and it's staggering."
"The crew that went out used sonar and the differential way sound waves move through water as opposed to sediment," Albers said. "They determined that it's actually much, much bigger. Which is kind of crazy."
Albers said according to the new data the waste pile is as deep as 10 metres in some places "and much bigger than 600 metres long."
"That was staggering when I first saw it," he said. "It's even worse than we thought."
Albers said he and his team are using probes to monitor the sediment in the water and will study impacts to the food web and ecosystem over the long-term.
He added Quesnel Lake has an impressive sockeye salmon population, hosting as much as 60 percent of the province's sockeye run during peak years. "We had a million fish come back this most recent year," he said, adding, "the big concern is that copper and salmon really don't mix all that well."
"Specifically, dissolved copper and salmon don't mix well. It can get into their olfactory system—so the fish equivalent of a nose—and really mess with their ability to utilize their ecosystem properly."
Albers said studying the levels of dissolved copper in Quesnel Lake over the long-term will be critical to understanding the impact of the spill on sockeye.
Hitting the one year anniversary of the spill is important for scientists collecting basic data, Albers explained, because it allows for "more comparing apples to apples."
"We can now compare August 6 data from this year to August 6 data from last year. That will help us develop that longer-term time series which is critical to being able to comment on the impacts."
Last week BC's Ministry of Environment announced "significant progress" has been made in the last year to mitigate and remediate the impacts of the spill. In a press release the province lists the containment of tailings, water treatment and the protection of fish as "complete or suitably initiated."
Environment Minister Mark Polak said although "full environmental remediation will take years" the mine's work has been "truly impressive."
But fisheries biologist and Likely resident Richard Holmes said he finds that self-congratulatory attitude from the mine and the government "insulting."
"They've certainly accomplished some things. Hazeltine Creek has been somewhat cleaned up," he said, adding flatly: "it looks like a pretty ditch now."
"But unfortunately it's going to be used as a pretty ditch for a couple of years to transport waste water and it's not going to be used for fish habitat for at least two years."
"They may be happy, but for people who live here it's not what we envisioned at all," he said.
Holmes said he feels the community deserves better, from both the mine and the government.
"We have to keep stressing to the company and the government that they can't shortcut this remediation. Unfortunately the mining company has a mindset of bottom line: what can we do as fast as we can for the least amount of money. That has to stop."
"The world is watching us," Holmes said.
Kanahus Manuel, an Indigenous activist and member of the Secwepemc First Nation, said she participated in four different site visits over the last year and that "no significant type of cleanup has taken place at any of the sites."
"I've witnessed with my own eyes that there is no significant clean up," she said. "There is still crusted tailings on what used to be the forest floor. They've made a man-made channel on what used to be the Hazeltine Creek but those sediment ponds are not working, it's still spewing toxic tailings into Quesnel Lake. It's very distressing to us salmon people."
She added it was "very irresponsible" for the province to give permission to the mine to partially restart operations last month. "Mount Polley is still under investigation and they haven't cleaned up this disaster."
"They're getting away with it."
VICE Canada reached out to Lyn Anglin, Imperial Metals' Chief Scientific Officer, for comment but did not hear back by time of publication.
Local residents Gary and Peggy Zorn who run an eco-tourism and grizzly-watching business in Likely said they feel Mount Polley spill cleanup has been mostly superficial.
"They've taken care of the aesthetics," she said. "Things look okay but they haven't dealt with the environmental mess."
"They talk about the clean up that has been done. They've cleaned up the surface but there's a lot of other stuff that hasn't been done. They'll never get [the mine waste] out of the lake so you can hardly call that a cleanup."
Gary added, "all we're saying is, 'Hey, you guys created the mess. At least make an effort to straighten it out and not just what looks nice along the road.'"
Another couple, Greg and Ingrid Ritson who live on water from Quesnel River that drains directly from the lake, said they were relying on bottled water the mine was providing to them and other families in the area. But the mine cancelled that water delivery program in May.
"I think water's one of the biggest issues we've got to deal with," Greg Ritson said.
Ritson said he and his wife shower in water they draw from the lake and the effects of doing so worry him.
"You've got to watch," he said. "You will find if you shower every day, you will get dry spots, like I've never had in my life."
"But there's lots of people here that have horrendous problems: breaking out in skin rashes and stuff that they've never, ever had. And nobody can tell you why."
Ritson said the initial water bans warned people not to drink or bathe in the water and to keep their pets away. Now he said the community has been told the water is safe to bathe in.
"Where did they come up with that?"
"If you ask what are the long-term effects of the chemicals in the water, they'll say 'Oh they're fine,'" he said. "But if they're fine why couldn't we drink them? There seems to be an imbalance there."
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