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Independent expert engineering review launched following Mount Polley dam breach

   - Angie Mindus photo
— image credit: Angie Mindus photo

The Government of British Columbia, with the support of the Soda Creek Indian Band (Xat'sull First Nation) and Williams Lake Indian Band, has ordered an independent engineering investigation and inquiry into the Mount Polley tailings pond breach, and independent third-party reviews of all 2014 Dam Safety Inspections for every tailings pond at a permitted mine in the province.

"An independent engineering investigation is a crucial process required to understand the cause of this breach," Williams Lake Indian Band Chief Ann Louie said. "However, it is merely a first step in understanding the broader implications of this disaster. Many questions will remain regarding the long-term impacts to our communities and environment."

The independent engineering investigation and inquiry is authorized under the Mount Polley Investigation and Inquiry Regulation, issued pursuant to section 8 of the Ministry of Energy and Mines Act.

The investigation will be conducted by a panel of experts that will investigate the cause of the Mount Polley Mine tailings storage facility, including geotechnical standards, design of the dam, maintenance, regulations, inspections regimes and other matters the panel deems appropriate.

This section also provides the panel with the ability to compel evidence and authorizes the Minister to require the company to cover costs of the inquiry.

The independent engineering investigation and inquiry is step one of a two-step process.

First, the independent panel will conduct an investigation and provide recommendations through a final report by Jan. 31, 2015, that will determine why the tailings dam failed.

Second, the panel's recommendations will be reviewed by government and the Soda Creek Indian Band and Williams Lake Indian Band and then shared with the public, and implemented by government as needed and where appropriate to ensure such an incident never happens again.

"There is no doubt in anyone's minds that this is the worst mining disaster to ever occur in this province," Soda Creek Indian Band Chief Bev Sellars said. "Our nations and all British Columbians have raised questions as to how such a disaster could occur. With this independent investigation we will all get the answers we need and deserve.

"We look forward to receiving the results of the investigation and taking action to ensure an accident like this never happens again."

The panel members have been appointed by government with the support of the Soda Creek and Williams Lake Indian Bands.

The panel members are experienced geotechnical experts with expertise in tailings management facilities.

They are:

• Norbert Morgenstern, advisor to consulting engineers

• Steven Vick, geotechnical engineer (Colorado)

• Dirk Van Zyl, professor, University of British Columbia, Norman B. Keevil Institute of Mining Engineering (UBC)

Van Zyl said the failure of the tailings facility at Mount Polley was a dark day for the mining industry not only in B.C., but worldwide.

"It's extremely important for us to understand how this breach happened and why so that we can move forward with the best possible practices in ongoing and future mining operations," Van Zyl said.

The Soda Creek and Williams Lake Indian Bands were consulted on the terms of reference for the engineering investigation and will have a liaison to the panel.

The Association of Professional Engineers and Geoscientists of British Columbia (APEGBC) and the Institute of Mining Engineering at the University of British Columbia also provided input on the panel members.

The chief inspector of mines has also issued an order to all mining companies to conduct a dam safety inspection for every tailings storage facility at a permitted mine by Dec. 1, 2014.

Minister of Energy and Mines Bill Bennett, who is responsible for the core review of the tailings spill, said the government has a responsibility to find out why the breach happened and to make sure it never happens again and to take a leadership role internationally in learning from the incident.

"Mining is a critical industry in B.C., supporting dozens of communities and thousands of families," Bennett said. "The independent engineering investigation and third-party review of Dam Safety Inspections for every permitted tailings facility in the province will get the answers necessary to provide public confidence following this serious incident."

Under the order, those inspections must be reviewed by an independent, qualified, third party, professional engineer from a firm not associated with the tailings facility.

All information obtained under this order will be provided to First Nations and made public.

Under the Health, Safety and Reclamation Code for Mines in British Columbia, the deadline for dam safety inspections would have been March 31, 2015, and would not have required an independent third-party review.

The order accelerates the deadline and establishes the requirement for an independent review.

The order also includes a requirement for a third-party review of the dam consequence classifications by Dec. 1, 2014.

A dam's consequence classification is based on the potential impact to population, the environment, cultural values and infrastructure should it fail, and is set according to the Canadian Dam Association Dam Safety Guidelines.

Under the order, mines with high, very high or extreme consequence classifications will be required to have their Emergency Preparedness and Response Plans reviewed by an independent third party.

There are currently 98 permitted tailings impoundments at 60 operating and closed metal and coal mines in B.C.

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