In the early morning of August 4, 2014, a major breach occurred in an earthen dam built to contain millions of tons of mining waste – called “tailings” -- at the Mount Polley copper and gold mine in central British Columbia. Now, three days later, an estimated 1.3 billion gallons of contaminated tailings have spilled from the breached pond, sweeping untold volumes of waste and debris into the salmon stream and lake systems in the region and potentially threatening the Fraser River system to the west.
Previously pristine fishing, swimming, and summer vacation destinations like Polley Lake, Hazeltine Creek, and Quesnel Lake – including drinking water sources for the surrounding communities and residents -- are now ground zero for toxicity, government health warnings, and “clean-up” – if indeed such a thing is actually possible.
Right now, before our very eyes through horrifying YouTube video, we are witnessing the mine disaster that the communities of Bristol Bay have feared -- their “worst nightmare” – from the massive Pebble Mine.
It is the toxic time bomb explosion that all of us who've fought the Pebble Mine have predicted could happen.
It is the catastrophic impact that, in its Bristol Bay watershed assessment, the EPA described as foreseeable in the event of a “tailings storage facility failure” – in layman’s terms, a dam breach – a finding the Pebble Limited Partnership (and its sole remaining company Northern Dynasty Minerals) have resoundingly and repeatedly challenged as groundless, as bad science, as a violation of their “right to due process.”
It is, in short, the disaster that the Pebble Limited Partnership, time and again, has given their solemn word would never happen to Bristol Bay. And that is, you can bet, what they will continue to say, even in the wake of this catastrophe to the contrary –
Even though the company responsible for designing the earthen dam that failed this week is the very same company – Knight Piesold -- hired in 2006 by Northern Dynasty to design the earthern dams at Pebble.
Even though it’s the same company hired on Pebble's behalf to attack the EPA watershed assessment for Bristol Bay.
Even though it's the same company that had this to say about the EPA's assessment of a possible tailings dam failure at Pebble: "Modern dam design technologies are based on proven scientific/engineering principles, and there is no basis for asserting that they will not stand the test of time.” (June 28, 2013 Knight Piesold Memorandum to EPA, Table 1, at 6.)
After the devastating breach this week of the very dam it designed at Mount Polley, Knight Piesold is presumably rethinking that comment.
In all the uncertainty of the moment around what caused the failure, how it will be contained and eventually remediated, what its impacts will be and for how long, and how the surrounding communities and the lives of their residents will be affected – among all these questions, one thing is certain: the Pebble Partnership will somehow argue that “it won't happen here,” that they will do everything necessary to ensure “protection of the salmon,” that they can be trusted to live up to these commitments if only they are given an opportunity to prove it, and that the Mount Polley Mine was different.
And, on that last point, the Pebble Partnership will be right in one important respect:
The Pebble project would be bigger – a lot bigger: While Imperial Metals has been mining about 20,000 tons per day at its Mount Polley mine, Northern Dynasty has anticipated about ten times that at Pebble, with a tailings pond many times larger in footprint and scale.
"I apologize for what happened," Imperial Metals President Brian Kynoch said at a news conference in Likely, B.C., on Tuesday afternoon. "If you asked me two weeks ago if this could have happened, I would have said it couldn't."
Sadly, while he is probably telling the truth, he now knows better – too late for the once pristine, now contaminated, region of Lake Polley, British Columbia.
Shame on anyone who would still believe the empty, self-serving, impossible promises of the Pebble Partnershp and Northern Dynasty Minerals that they would never do to Alaska what Imperial Metals has done to British Columbia.
The Pebble Mine must be stopped. Take action now.