Would you drink water contaminated with copper?

Since August 4th this year, the residents of Likely, BC have had a very unique problem. People lost their jobs, tourists stopped visiting the area, they can peel the skin off of their salmon by simply touching it and they have lost access to some of their waters. Their waters—Hazeltine Creek, Polley Lake and Quesnel Lake—have been contaminated by 10 million cubic metres of water with 4.5 million cubic metres of tailing slurry from the Mount Polley Mine. Tailings are leftover waste from the mining process. Environment Canada information from Imperial Metals (the mining company in charge of the mine) say the tailings contain significant quantities of copper, lead, arsenic, mercury, cobalt, antimony, selenium and zinc. For a better view of the spill, watch what you can of this aerial video taken by Global News on the day of the spill:

Get a good look at the thick grey sludge flowing through Hazeltine Creek and how large the virtually empty tailings pond is.  Here is a before and after satellite view of the area.

The Provincial government has ordered an independent technical investigation on this and all tailings ponds in BC. Cleanup consists of a dike being built around the breach and they are also pumping the tailings out of Polley Lake into Quesnel Lake. That’s right; part of their cleanup involves pumping the stuff out of the smaller mostly polluted lake into the larger, mostly cleaner lake. Independent tests declared that water 100 metres past the sediment plume is safe for any use. However, sediment is still shifting and has exceeded guidelines for drinking and aquatic health. I don’t blame the residents that still weren’t drinking the water a month after the breach.

Both Imperial Metals and our Provincial government are complicit in this disaster. Our government knew that water levels exceeded allowable levels. Imperial Metals knew that they had to correct this and that an inspection in 2010 warned them about a 10-15 metre tension crack in the dam wall. What are they going to do to protect the flora and fauna in the area? What are they going to do to prevent future dam breaches? A million salmon are expected to spawn near Quesnel lake where they might be exposed to toxic sediment. Residents depend on that salmon for their livelihoods, particularly the First Nations. Dr. Carl Walters, a UBC fisheries school professor, said in an interview to Maclean’s: “But at this point all we can do is to keep our fingers crossed that the polluted layer will be diluted enough by the time the main body of fish arrives so as not to be a major problem for them.”

I am certain being able to drink right out of the tap is taken for granted in Metro Vancouver. 780 million people (1 in 9) on this planet struggle to access improved water sources. I am from a place that the words for “drinking water” literally mean “boiled water.”

North America is in the midst of a major boom in unconventional fossil fuels. Tar sands and Shale gas require extraordinary amounts of water to produce crude bitumen and LNG. How these operations use water is already significantly harming the environment, the wildlife and the residents living near these sites. Mount Polley, Athabasca, Louisiana all seem far until disaster arrives at your front door.



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