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The untouched Stikine River (Image: WikiMedia Commons)

The untouched Stikine River (Image: WikiMedia Commons)

On August 4, 2014 the Mount Polley Mine tailings pond belonging to Imperial Metals ruptured, releasing a huge volume of toxic substances into the BC waterways in the central interior.

The initial estimates of 4.5 million cubic meters of silt and 10 million cubic meters of water laced with mercury and arsenic that spilled into pristine waterways turned out to be only part of the total volume of contaminated water, which has now been estimated to be at 25 million cubic meters.

The rupture, initially spilling the tailings into a couple of lakes and creeks, later affected two river system areas (Quesnel and Caribou) and lead to a complete water ban that lasted for days. Photos and raw video footage provided shocking evidence of the unfolding environmental damage. 

The ban was lifted shortly after the breach, but residents and environmentalists worried about the lasting effects on health and the environment, including concerns about the long term effects on local salmon, an important source of food for both people and wildlife in the area.

It will be a long time until the area will be clean again, and the place will never be the same. While the term “disaster” attached to the tailings pond rupture has been disputed and considered too harsh in addressing the issue, the reality of the environmental damage cannot be underestimated.

It is no surprise then that the newly proposed mine by the same company, this time in Northern British Columbia near the Stikine River, has been received with strong opposition by the local people.

An independent report requested by the Tahltan people, a local First Nations group, came back with no less than 22 safety recommendations and with dire predictions of an even bigger environmental disaster than the Mount Polley tailings pond spill, should the project get approval.

A recent decision of the BC government to open a Major Mine Permitting Office that, pending approval, will see its funding raised by $6 million to reach an estimated $17.1 million, is bound to create frowns among many.

The British Columbia residents are not the only ones concerned about the safety of provincial mines. Alaskan environmentalists and First Nations groups expressed concerns over the increased mine development in the pristine areas of Northern BC, especially after the recent Mount Polley incident.

Some of the salmon-rich rivers that run through the area are shared by the two neighboring provinces, and any industrial development in the area that runs the risk of pollution will affect them and the local tourism revenue.

While the debate surrounding mines is unlikely to end anytime soon, the efforts of local communities to push for better environmental stewardship when it comes to mines has to be applauded, supported and replicated whenever possible.

Mines are never an isolated event. While they provide employment for local people and revenues for the province, they also come with risks. Proper safety assessments and putative environmental costs should precede any mining activity, no matter how profitable, should there be any concerns. 

With many large pristine areas in Canada dwindling due to industrial developments, long term consequences of every proposed natural resource exploitation project should be examined with added concern.

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