A pall of uncertainty hangs over Likely as a total breach in the Mount Polley tailings pond continues to pour a slurry of toxic water and mud into Quesnel Lake, once renowned for being the cleanest deep water lake in the world.
In the early hours of August 4, the four-kilometre-long dam containing the tailings pond of the copper and gold mine burst, sending millions of tons of contaminated water, mud and mining slurry into the salmon-bearing water system.
Hazeltine Creek, previously a stream two metres wide, is now a wasteland 50 metres across, after five million cubic metres of effluent flooded into nearby Polley Lake and carved its own canyon several kilometres in length to Quesnel Lake.
Eye-witnesses to the devastation, Stan and Rosanne Siemens of Quesnel, were boating on the East Arm of Quesnel Lake. When they turned the corner on their way back to Likely they could hardly believe their eyes. A mile down the lake a floating mass of twisted trees stretched half way across the lake.
“It’s rude up there,” Stan Siemens says. “Half way across the lake trees were sticking straight up. I’m a logger and it would take us a year to take that many trees down, and this happened in 20 minutes.”
The land is destroyed, Rosanne Siemens adds. “Raft Creek is a river now. It’s all mud.”
VIDEO: Mount Polley Mine Tailings Pond Breach (August 4, 2014)
A toxic plume continues to build in the lake and move down the outflow into the Quesnel River at Likely. Before nightfall the water advisory for Likely had been expanded for the whole Quesnel River system to the City of Quesnel on the Fraser River.
Robin Hood, president of the Likely Chamber of Commerce, is grim as his wife, Darlene, hands out water advisory notices to people recreating on the shore of the river.
“The whole economy of this town (Likely) is dependent on the mine and tourism,” Hood says. “Now we might have lost both overnight.”
Sitting in the shade on the porch of Likely’s general store, 28-year-old Kalvin King is checking the Internet on his smartphone.
He’s from Horsefly but has a placer claim above Quesnel Forks. He’s been working four days and was going to jump in the lake and go for a swim before he got the water advisory.
“I haven’t had a shower for four days so I’m pretty hot,” says Kalvin, who describes himself as a guy who’s not very concerned about anything.
“I’ve worked at both Mount Polley and Gibraltar so I know what stuff is in the tailings ponds. It’s there for a good reason and it’s supposed to stay there and not leave. It’s an environmental disaster.”
He says he’ll probably go back to Horsefly for his shower.
Placer miner, Chris Fournier, 45, pulls up to the gas pumps of the store in his quad ATV. He lives down river from the townsite and washed his face in the river and had a drink before he heard of the breach and the water advisory.
“It tasted like sucking pennies,” he said.
He was fishing for Chinook salmon the day before in the Cariboo River and is worried about the effect on the various salmon runs making their way up the Fraser River.
He said workers at Mount Polley Mine warned him that the tailings pond was going to breach. “And it did.”
Aileen Peterson, owner of Valley General Store in Likely for eight years, said the water level on Quesnel Lake behaved strangely.
“It went up and then down and few feet. We got a call at 6 a.m. that everybody had to take their boats out of the water.”
Robin Hood applauds the actions of Likely First Responders who woke him up at 5 a.m. and evacuated the Cedar Point Provincial Campsite over fears that the breach would cause a Tsunami.
“It’s better to err on the side of precaution,” he says.
For Likely pub owners Randy and Claudine Kadonaga, there are still a lot of unanswered questions.
“So far there are a lot of rumours,” says Randy. “We’re waiting to see what happens.”
“We don’t have anything to say until we know more,” adds Claudine. “We opened early on Monday and served a lot of breakfasts when they evacuated Cedar Point Park.”
Waiting in the balance is the plight of 500 employees of Mount Polley Mine.
Jamie Regier, who works for Ducks Unlimited, took one last dip in Quesnel River with his three-year-old daughter, Lauren, before the toxic debris reached Likely.
“I’m pretty shocked,” he said. “The entire impact is going to ruin this town. I have a lot of friends at Mount Polley, and it’s going to be shut down.”
An employee of Mount Polly Mine who was on shift the night of the breach and asked to remain anonymous, confirmed you can’t operate a mine without a tailings pond facility.
“Thank God nobody was killed or injured. If that breach would have occurred during the day with all the contract workers in the area, it wouldn’t have been so good.”
Rick Matthews, a former Moorhouse Lake resident, boated down Quesnel Lake to view the debris pile on Monday. He is worried that unless something is done, the mass of logs will get swept down the Quesnel River with devastating results.
“The floating island of logs is creeping towards Likely,” he says. “There needs to be damage control or it will pile up against the bridge and could take it out.”
More video from the Cariboo Regional District’s Emergency Operations Centre…