Tailing pond breach, a cautionary tale in the making

When the tailing ponds from resource extraction fail the results can be disastrous.  This was reinforced this week when a berm containing effluent from mining operations on Mount Polley in British Columbia ruptured sending 10 billion litres of toxic water into several lakes, creeks and rivers.  Despite years of warnings from the province that something had to be done before an accident occurred, nothing happened and environmental degradation is the price now being paid for allowing industries to regulate themselves.

Mining began to be deregulated in the 1990s and the number of environmental inspectors (Ministries of  Fisheries and Environment) has dropped from that era too.  This may remind you of the work that Stephen Harper has undertaken on behalf of Canada’s oil and gas sector.  The Conservatives have steadily run down regulations and white-washed environmental laws to minimize corporate responsibility while placing our shared environment at risk. 

In the end, the results of these disasters affect everyone.  Imperial Metals (the company mining Mount Polley) is paying for their short-term gains with a 40% drop in share prices, but that loss of cash compromises the company’s ability to pay for the cleanup.  The province will likely have to pick up a good chunk of the tab to clean up as much as is possible.  The biggest losers have to be the wild salmon and the rich bio-diversity that depends on those fish travelling to their home streams to spawn. 

Losing salmon rivers is no small matter – they have been described as highways that bring nutrients far inland from the ocean.  These systems have been fine tuned for thousands of years and there is no guarantee they can ever be repaired.  Fisheries scientists have shown that the wild stock in each stream are a little different from all others making them genetically unique to their watersheds.  While we can potentially re-stock, the minute differences in strains that have imprinted on the same stream for thousands of years can never be replaced.  Before that can be attempted substantial and expensive cleanup will be required.  

Somewhere along the line we have to learn that deregulation along with a reduced capacity for inspection and over-sight are not cost-cutting measures, they are nothing more than gambling.  As B.C.  considers the proposed Northern Gateway pipeline, incidents like the disaster on Mount Polley have to be taken into consideration.   It shows that we cannot accept industry assurances at face value and that the job of oversight cannot be left with those who stand to profit from short-cuts.

As Canadians we have to ask ourselves if relatively short-lived economic activity is worth negative, long-term environmental consequences.   Our Conservative government is too one-sided on these issues and are fierce supporters of uncontrolled resource development.  It is clear they are willing to gamble away our environmental legacy for short-term gain on the stock markets.    Canadians have to make their voices heard on this or the lessons from Mount Polley could be lost.