Earlier this week, a breach at the Mount Polley tailings pond in British Columbia spilled billions of gallons of toxic sludge into the region’s lakes and rivers. Prior to the disaster, the province’s Ministry of Environment had issued five warnings to Imperial Metals, the owners of the pond, concerning its structural integrity.
Brian Olding is an environmental consultant who conducted an assessment of the pond’s levels in 2009. Even then, he told CBC News, the water was too high. Moreover, he discovered that the company had prepared no contingency plan for the event of a breach. “I requested a structural engineering company be involved, and that was nixed,” he said. “They did not want to deal with that problem at that time.”
Tailings are the leftovers in the mining process, made up of fine rock particles, water, and the chemicals used to extract minerals or oil. These chemicals undergo reactions when submerged in wet storage ponds like the one on Mount Polley. Last year, a report from Imperial Metals listed the full contents of its tailings, which included over 84,000 kilograms of arsenic; 38,000 kilograms of lead; 562 kilograms of mercury, and thousands of tonnes of copper, zinc, phosphorous and manganese.
When the pond was breached, it flooded the local Cariboo with over 1.3 billion gallons of toxic waste and an additional 2.6 billion gallons of potentially toxic water.
“It’s an environmental disaster. It’s huge,” said Chief Ann Louie of the region’s Williams Lake Indian Band, which hunts and fishes in the Cariboo. “The damage done to that area, it’ll never come back. This will affect our First Nations for years and years.”
“Our economy swims in the river and walks by the ground,” said Chief Bev Sellars of the Soda Creek First Nations Tribe. “There’s not any amount of money in the world that’s going to fix what’s happened.”
Two First Nations tribe commissioned a report on the pond in 2011, which was funded by Imperial Metals. At the time, the pond was found to be well over its storage limit. In 2012, another report by the B.C. Ministry of Environment found the same thing.
According to Vice, there are over 3,500 tailings ponds across the globe, most of which lack any long-term plans for disposal. Much of the sludge is too toxic to treat or recycle and breaches happen all the time (39 percent of which occur right here in the U.S.).
“Any time you rely on a dyke to contain something, whether it’s water or tailings, it’s going to fail some day, sooner or later,” says Henry Vaux, a resource economist at the University of California Riverside. “To think they’re bullet-proof is to fool yourself.”