T A I L I N G S
D A M S
Imperial Metals' Red Chris Mine
Stikine River Watershed
The pressing need to improve tailings storage and waste management at British Columbia mines became apparent on August 4, 2014. On that day, in one of the greatest environmental disasters in Canadian history, the Mount Polley Mine tailings dam collapsed—abruptly draining a massive volume of contaminated mining waste into Hazeltine Creek and Quesnel Lake.
Seventeen million cubic meters (4.5 billion gallons) of wastewater and eight million cubic meters (more than 2 billion gallons) of tailings blasted the stream below from five metres to 100 metres (330 feet) in width and deposited the waste into the salmon-spawning Quesnel Lake.
The incident forced a temporary drinking water ban for area residents and raised concerns about long-term impacts on fish, wildlife and Indigenous cultures.
The government-appointed panel of independent expert engineers investigating the incident predicted that many similar events could be expected in the future. Noting the 123 active tailings dams across the province, the Expert Panel stated:
If the inventory of active tailings dams in the province remains unchanged, and performance in the future reflects that in the past, then on average there will be two failures every 10 years and six every 30. In the face of these prospects, the Panel firmly rejects any notion that business as usual can continue.
Those 123 dams pose significant risks. A study that mapped potential paths of contaminants from dam failures at just 35 northern tailings ponds estimated that 33 Indigenous communities and 208 cities and settlements could be affected.
In the study area, 80% of all chinook and sockeye salmon habitat lies downstream from a tailings facility—or requires migration through a potential contamination path. This risk to fish poses a particularly serious threat to Indigenous rights and the livelihoods of communities that depend on healthy fisheries.
The Mount Polley disaster spotlighted B.C.’s flawed rules governing mine tailing dams and offered an opportunity to make significant improvements. In January 2015, the Expert Panel concluded their investigation and issued a number of recommendations for change.
While the B.C. government agreed to implement many of these recommendations, key Expert Panel recommendations have still not been fully implemented. Government has yet to adopt state-of-the-art standards for managing tailings and other mine wastes.
Learn More: British Columbia Mining Law Reform Network, "Disposal and Management" Report
Aerial footage of Mount Polley mine waste dam failure.
SALMON BEYOND BORDERS is a campaign driven by sport and commercial fishermen, community leaders, tourism and recreation business owners and concerned citizens, in collaboration with Tribes and First Nations, united across the Alaska/British Columbia border to defend and sustain our transboundary rivers, jobs and way of life.
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