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Updated: Fri, 08 Aug 2014 13:50:03 GMT | By CBC News, cbc.ca

Mount Polley mine spill: Minister says residents may get lucky break



Contents from a tailings pond is pictured going down the Hazeltine Creek into Quesnel Lake near the town of Likely, B.C. Tuesday, August, 5, 2014. The pond which stores toxic waste from the Mount Polley Mine had its dam break on Monday spilling its contents into the Hazeltine Creek causing a wide water-use ban in the area. Jonathan Hayward/Canadian Press

Contents from a tailings pond is pictured going down the Hazeltine Creek into Quesnel Lake near the town of Likely, B.C. Tuesday, August, 5, 2014. The pond which stores toxic waste from the Mount Polley Mine had its dam break on Monday spilling its contents into the Hazeltine Creek causing a wide water-use ban in the area. Jonathan Hayward/Canadian Press

The minister responsible for British Columbia's mines says residents living along waterways affected by a mining-waste spill could catch a lucky break because the waste may not be poisonous.

Energy and Mines Minister Bill Bennett says the Mount Polley tailings pond breach in B.C.'s Cariboo region may not be toxic because the copper and gold mine is not generating acid, which means caustic chemicals are not leached out of the rocks and into the water.

Initial test results show water in the surrounding area is of drinking quality, but a water-use ban is still in effect because the nearby Polley Lake has not yet been tested.

David Lacroix of the town of Likely, B.C., which is in the spill area, says the findings have made him optimistic, but he wonders why more was not done to prevent the accident.

- MORE | Taxpayers should not foot Mount Polley cleanup, says federal minister

- MINISTRY ORDER | B.C. mine-waste spill could mean $1M fine for Imperial Metals

- PHOTOS | 'The devastation up the lake is unbelievable'

B.C. Premier Christy Clark met with concerned Likely residents on Thursday.

The tailings pond of the Mount Polley mine was breached on Monday, sending 5,800 Olympic swimming pools worth of waste water and potentially toxic silt into nearby waterways.

The breach released 10 billion litres of water and 4.5 million cubic metres of metals-laden fine sand, contaminating several lakes, creeks and rivers in the Cariboo region 

Residents were advised Monday not to bathe in or drink the water because authorities were concerned heavy metals from the mine, owned by Imperial Metals, could be poisonous.

B.C.'s Environment Ministry has tested water collected since the day of the devastating spill, from several locations in Quesnel Lake, to determine potential impacts on drinking water quality and aquatic life.

An explanatory note, from the ministry's impact assessment​ head, Gabriele Matscha​, that was posted with the results on the ministry's website says that the water remains within drinking-quality guidelines and aquatic life is not expected to be impacted. 

"Samples collected near the town site of Likely and on the north shore of Quesnel Lake indicate that none of the analyzed chemical and physical contaminant concentrations exceeded B.C. or Health Canada drinking water guidelines," Matscha writes.

On mobile? Click here for full drinking water and aquatic guidelines tests and explanatory note

The samples were tested for pH, conductivity, turbidity, total suspended solids, total dissolved solids, hardness, alkalinity, total and dissolved metals, and E.coli.

Matscha also pointed out that fish tissue samples have not yet been collected, but that is planned in the near future. Water samples have still not been taken from Polley Lake.

 Residents have been told not to drink, bathe or swim in the water until officials determine what's in it.

Interior Health, the regional health authority, said it will keep the ongoing water advisory in place because it believes further testing is needed, since these tests are preliminary and based on a small sample. 

Christy Clark: 'Our hearts are with you'

Clark told Likely residents after the accidental release: "Everybody across British Columbia, our hearts are with you. This is a pristine resource for everybody, but for nobody more than you. And I know it's just been a terrible, terrible heartache."

Clark said the cause of the breach remained a mystery, but once that had been established, the province would decide what it would do differently.

"We are going to be with you, shoulder to shoulder, to do everything we can to return it to the real pristine beauty we all know this lake is for our province, because this is just such an incredible, incredible asset and so important to all of you."

'Deeply troubling environmental crisis'

The spill happened in First Nations Secwepemc Territory, whose leaders have called upon Imperial Metals to shut down business within the Secwepemc Nation and called for a moratorium on mining within their territory.

The Assembly of First Nations has called for immediate action to limit damage by what they called a "developing and deeply troubling environmental crisis."

- MORE | Video tour of Quesnel Lake's new debris piles

- PHOTOS | Quesnel Lake debris cleanup begins

- IN-DEPTH | Tailings ponds: What's in them?

"There are immediate risks to the residents, the environment and the economy — particularly the fisheries,​" said AFN B.C. Regional Chief Jody Wilson-Raybould in a press release.

"This area is upstream from the Fraser River and is a major spawning ground for salmon, both of which are integral to Indigenous peoples culture and way of life."

Association of First Nations Alberta Regional Chief Cameron Alexis, who oversees the environment portfolio for the AFN, said First Nations communities are often the first to feel the impact of environmental changes.

 "First Nations and many Canadians continue to be concerned about the weakening of environmental standards and protection of waterways and fish habitats as a result of recent changes to legislation," said Alexis in the same statement. 

"We must focus on the need to include First Nations in early planning and mitigation as well as monitoring the long-term effects where our lands and traditional territories are concerned. This is our right and this approach will benefit all Canadians."

The Secwepemc Women Warrior Society, representing the women of the First Nation, announced Thursday it intended to stage a protest outside the Toronto Stock Exchange to voice opposition to the company.

- REPORT | Tailings pond breach followed years of government warnings

- MORE | Salmon run threatened by Mount Polley mine spill

"I am torn about the Imperial Metals tailings spill that has wreaked havoc on my homelands, since my family and [Aboriginal] Peoples have been fighting this same mine for years," said the society's Kanahus Manuel in a press release.

"We will send our war cries into the universe. Let's force the Toronto Stock Exchange to pull Imperial Metals off the TSX."

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