BY SARAH BERMAN, VICE.COM
After a man-made lake full of mining waste collapsed last week, BC Minister of Energy and Mines Bill Bennett compared the disaster to an avalanche. (An avalanche potentially laced with 500 kilos of mercury, but close enough). He also denied the massive spill qualified as an environmental disaster, pointing to early water tests that passed Health Canada’s drinking water standards.
The breached Mount Polley tailings pond spewed millions of cubic meters of sludge into British Columbian waterways, sparking fear and anxiety around Imperial Metals’ sister projects. As long-term safety questions remain unanswered, at least two other mining sites are now facing eviction and blockades.
Yesterday Bennett and top officials from Imperial Metals traveled more than a dozen hours north of the spill to the company’s soon-to-be-opened Red Chris copper and gold mine near Iskut, BC. There, a group of Tahltan First Nation elders are maintaining a blockade at the mine’s two entrances.
“It’s intense,” said Annita McPhee, former president of the Tahltan First Nation’s central council. “Our people have a lot of anxiety, a lot of fear around this environmental devastation. The same type of mine and tailings is coming to our backyard, so we are very, very fearful.”
Last summer, the Tyee reported on gaps in the approved Red Chris plan, which will place a tailings storage facility across three watersheds known as Sacred Headwaters. The mine is scheduled to open later this year.
“We had intense meetings for three days,” said McPhee, reached yesterday by phone at a nearby Tatogga Lake restaurant. The nation requested an independent review of the tailings design at Red Chris, which McPhee said the company verbally agreed to carry out. “Some firm commitments were made, but we want to hold the government accountable as well,” she said.
Following a long history of resistance to energy and mining development, the Tahltan say they will hold the blockade until the province and company put commitments in writing. “One of the things Mr. Bennett said was ‘We’re prepared to shut it down until things are safe,'” McPhee added.
Meanwhile Neskonlith Indian Band, part of the Secwepemc Nation, released an eviction notice to Imperial Metals. The Facebook statement orders the company to stay away from the site of its proposed Ruddock Creek zinc and lead mine, located about 150 kilometers northeast of Kamloops.
“Neskonlith has not signed any agreements with the province or Imperial Metals, we have not provided our consent to the proposed mining development,” reads the letter. “Notice is hereby issued to Imperial Metals owners, employees, insurers, and investors that Neskonlith will not provide access to our lands for the Ruddock Creek mining development.”
Last week, several First Nations near the spill closed fishing operations due to fear of contamination. Statements on Aug. 7 warned four nations including the Secwepemc to stop fishing immediately following reports of “salmon being caught near Lytton in the Fraser River with their skins peeling off.”
Murray Ross, director of the Secwepemc Fisheries Commission and author of one alarmed notice, said his commission did not intend to inflame “hysteria” by referencing a widely shared Twitter photo of sickly salmon which he called an “isolated incident.”
A spokesperson from the BC Ministry of Environment, who requested not to be attributed, confirmed the ministry was aware of the circulating salmon-peeling photo but denied links to the non-disaster. “As far as I know, any dead salmon are from temperature affects, not from the tailings pond breach.”
Fisheries and Oceans Canada banned salmon fishing in the Cariboo and Quesnel Rivers last Tuesday night, but lifted most ofthe ban Wednesday morning. “Based on the water quality testing results provided by the BC Ministry of the Environment, the salmon fishing closure on the Quesnel and Cariboo Rivers will be rescinded.”
While the results seem encouraging, First Nations’ trust in both Imperial Metals and the government continue to erode in light of more reports that the company made hundreds of thousands of dollars in political donations while mining inspections dropped over the same period.
“We’re still recommending caution,” Ross said, adding that University of Northern British Columbia researchers and other First Nations agencies are awaiting independent test results. “If there is some bioaccumulation, it’s way too soon to see that… there’s still a lot of unknowns, like what’s in the sediment in Quesnel Lake.”
As the Red Chris mine blockade stretches six days, the Klabona Keepers show no signs of backing down.
“I’d say support is growing,” said McPhee of the surrounding community’s interest in the Tahltan protest. As British Columbians reel from the shock and uncertainty, Imperial Metals opposition appears to be building—just don’t expect Bill Bennett to call it an avalanche.