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Updated: Tue, 05 Aug 2014 17:48:26 GMT | By CBC News, cbc.ca

Mount Polley Mine tailings breach should not have happened, Bill Bennett says



An aerial view of the Mount Polley Mine tailings pond shows the area where the earthen wall gave way early Monday morning, sending five million cubic metres of copper and gold mining wastewater into waterways near Likely, B.C. Cariboo Regional District/Facebook

An aerial view of the Mount Polley Mine tailings pond shows the area where the earthen wall gave way early Monday morning, sending five million cubic metres of copper and gold mining wastewater into waterways near Likely, B.C. Cariboo Regional District/Facebook

B.C.'s minister of energy and mines says he is devoting every appropriate resource to deal with the consequences of Monday's massive failure of a mine tailings dam in B.C.'s Central Interior.

Wastewater and tailings sediment from Imperial Metals's Mount Polley copper and gold mine near Likely, B.C., has contaminated several lakes, creeks and rivers in the Cariboo region, causing officials to evacuate local campgrounds and enact a number of water-use and drinking water bans.

- IN DEPTH | Tailings ponds: What's in them and what risks do they pose?

- MORE | Drinking water ban, environmental nightmare at tailings pond breach area

- RAW VIDEO | View from a helicopter over the tailings breach zone

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

Officials are expected to give a news conference in Likely, B.C. at 3 p.m. PT. Follow our live blog below to get updates as it happens.

On mobile? Click here for the Mount Polley news conference live blog

Minister Bill Bennett, who is on his way to the site and expected to arrive mid-afternoon Tuesday, said the province is working with local officials to clean up the site and mitigate community and environmental impacts.

"This is a serious incident that should not have happened," he said in a written statement. "We will determine the cause of the event and we are determined to prevent an incident like this from happening again."

The ministry said an estimated 10 billion litres of water and 4.5 million cubic metres of metals-laden fine sand has been released into Polley Lake, and may have flowed out through Hazeltine Creek and into Quesnel Lake.

The regional district and local health authority issued a precautionary water ban, advising visitors and residents not to drink or bathe in the water of affected areas, and not to allow animals to drink the water, either.

Drinking water and water use bans:

- Quesnel Lake.

- Polley Lake.

- Hazeltine Creek.

- Cariboo Creek.

- Quesnel and Cariboo river systems, right up to mouths at Fraser River.

Note: The ban currently does not apply to people in Williams Lake or other towns along the Fraser River.

​Source: Cariboo Regional District, B.C. Ministry of Energy and Mines

Personnel from the province's Environment Ministry have taken water samples, which are being sent for analysis, Bennett said.

In a statement released Tuesday morning, Imperial Metals said that the area of the breach had stabilized and no injuries had been reported.

"Our first priority is the health and safety of our employees and neighbours, and we are relieved no loss of life or injury have been reported," the Vancouver-based company said. "We are deeply concerned and are working to mitigate immediate effects and understand the cause."

The company said the tailings are not acid-generating and the water is alkaline with a pH of roughly 8.5, but it could not confirm the exact quantity and composition of the discharged wastewater.

In filings made to Canada's National Pollutant Release Inventory in 2013 — which is only one year's worth of data, but gives some idea of what the mine's byproducts are — Imperial Metals recorded disposing of quantities of arsenic, lead, manganese, cobalt, mercury and other harmful mining byproducts.

Mount Polley mine on-site disposal in 2013:

- Arsenic (and its compounds): 406 tonnes

- Lead (and its compounds) 177 tonnes

- Nickel (and its compounds) 326 tonnes

- Vanadium (except when in an alloy): 5,047 tonnes

- Zinc (and its compounds): 2,169 tonnes

- Cadmium (and its compounds): 6 tonnes

- Cobalt (and its compounds): 475 tonnes

- Phosphorus (total): 41,640 tonnes

- Copper (and its compounds): 18,413 tonnes

- Antimony (and its compounds) 14 tonnes

- Manganese (and its compounds): 20,988 tonnes

- Mercury (and its compounds): 3 tonnes 

- Selenium (and its compounds): 46 tonnes

Source: NPRI

Imperial Metals also could not confirm what led to the collapse of the earthen dam.

"The dam is an independently engineered structure that operated within design limits and specifications. Monitoring instruments and onsite personnel had no indication of an impending breach," the company said.

Imperial Metals said it is working closely with emergency response officials and provincial ministries, and that it has notified its insurers of the incident.

Imperial Metals, an exploration and mine development and operation company, operates the Mount Polley copper and gold mine in British Columbia and the Sterling gold mine in Nevada.

News of the failure of the tailings pond dam sent shares of Imperial Metals plunging by 44 per cent in morning trading on the TSX. The stock slid $7.43 to $9.47 in heavy trading. 

The company also holds a 50 per cent stake in the Huckleberry copper mine and a 50 per cent stake in the Ruddock Creek lead and zinc property, both of which are in B.C., and is in the process of developing the Red Chris copper and gold property in B.C.

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