Sludge spill will test government, industry

How the B.C. government handles this cleanup and punishment of Imperial Metals will set the tone for future resource extraction projects.

Like the vast majority of British Columbians, I’m still waiting for Imperial Metals chief executive officer Brian Kynoch to take a big drink of water from his blown tailings pond near Likely, B.C.

After the Mount Polley tailing pond released billions of litres of mining wastewater into the watershed in the Cariboo region, Kynoch suggested the destruction of an ecosystem stretching from central B.C. to the Fraser River wasn’t that bad as the tailings pond contained water that was “near drinking water quality.”

Folks were quick to point out the similarity between Kynoch’s declaration and that of a fictional television character who declared a three-eyed fish below his nuclear power plant to be entirely safe to consume.

Luckily for Kynoch, none of the reporters gathered had a bottle of the sludge to challenge his assumption. Based on a series of three water quality tests, it looks as though the mining company might have dodged a bullet as the readings in creeks and lakes affected by the spill came back within drinking water guidelines.

But like a lot of British Columbians, I’m no less angry that an industrial disaster of this magnitude happened.

The company, which operates an open-pit, copper-gold mine since 1997, was warned by the Ministry of Environment about the level of water in the tailings pond back in May, which followed an advisory about high water flow during the spring runoff.

The company had also applied to the ministry to increase the release of water from the pond prior to the breach, but the application was still under consideration.

As the water tests come back with acceptable levels for drinking, and the Fraser River sockeye run looks to be unaffected by the devastation upstream, I worry that we’ve missed an opportunity to put more oversight into the Ministry of Environment at a time when resource extraction is key to the provincial government’s plan for the economy.

How the B.C. government handles this cleanup and punishment of Imperial Metals will set the tone for any future resource extraction project in the province.

Those who are sitting on the fence right now about Northern Gateway pipeline, or LNG fracking in the Peace River, will quickly decide on which side to land, depending on how Premier Christy Clark’s government handles this environmental disaster.

If it looks like the provincial government is in control, and the mining company is satisfactorily contrite, the projects might squeak out the support they need.

If the company slides, if it gets away with proverbial murder, battle lines will be drawn and it will be all-out war in the woods as blockades and protests halt progress on not only the pipeline and fracking, but also any further resource development in B.C.

Residents on the left coast have gone to jail before to protect the environment – not just so-called professional protesters, either.