In the wake of dam breach disaster in British Columbia on Aug. 4, there are still many unanswered questions about the extent of damage to fisheries and the environment, and the answers could come in reports due at the end of January. Commercial fishermen and environmentalists in Southeast Alaska have cast a wary eye on the Mount Polley dam breach, as well as proposed plans for several mines near transboundary rivers in British Columbia that flow into Southeast Alaska.
They note that millions of cubic meters of wastes released by the dam breach poured into central British Columbia waterways, and are concerned that toxic substances from other proposed mining ventures could enter the habitat of critical salmon fisheries and spawning grounds.
British Columbia’s minister of energy and mines, Bill Bennett says he expects to receive reports by Jan. 31 from three independent experts contracted to investigate the dam breach.
Also underway are an internal investigation by British Columbia’s Ministry of Energy and Mines and Ministry of Environment, and a review by the province’s chief mines inspector, into how safe are all the tailings ponds at British Columbia’s mines.
“Everybody is being interviewed,” he told participants in the Alaska Miners Association’s annual convention in Anchorage on Nov. 7. “We need to pinpoint the specific cause.”
Bennett’s visit to Alaska also included visits with state officials and Julianne Curry, executive director of United Fishermen of Alaska.
The meeting with Bennett was “just to open lines of communication,” Curry said.
“They are extremely eager to come to Alaska to talk about past and future projects.”
Curry said that Canada’s annual Mineral Exploration Roundup will be happening in Victoria, B.C. at the same time as the International Pacific Halibut Commission is meeting there, and that she hoped fishermen would be extended an invitation to the miners event for further opening of those lines of communication.
Bennett’s assurances aside, skepticism abounds.
John Cumming, editor in chief of The Northern Miner, in Toronto, in an editorial written two days after the Mount Polley tailings spill, wrote that “…what makes all this particularly depressing is that Imperial Metals is one of the class acts of Canadian mining, and the mine was built by highly skilled Canadian miners to modern technical standards in our own backyard.
“… And all that Imperial – representing the very best in Canadian mining – could come up with on the day of the disaster was “The cause of the breach is unknown at this time….
“In other words, ‘We ain’t got a clue, folks’,” Cumming said.
Jacinda Mack, coordinator for the Mount Polley Disaster Response Team representing the Soda Creek Indian Band and Williams Lake Indian Band, said there was a blue, waxy sheen on the water at Quesnel Lake and that the lake was turning a yellowish green color.”
Mack described the plume as about 20 kilometers in size. “It has tailings mixed in with sediments, soils, clays that are suspended in the water so you can see them in the water. It almost looks like a glacial river,” she said.
The Quesnel, the sixth deepest freshwater lake in North America, is an important migratory route for salmon to the Frasier River, a major commercial salmon fishery.