Likely residents are bracing for what is to come after a tailings pond filled with several million cubic metres of mine wastewater burst its banks at Mount Polley Mine, entering Quesnel Lake at Hazeltine Creek in the early morning hours on BC Day, Monday, Aug. 4.
“It’s a very sad, tragic thing but it’s happening and we have to deal with it,” said lakefront resident Pohney Whitmer, who was busy distributing posters for a highly-anticipated town hall meeting set to get underway with officials in Likely yesterday at 4 p.m.
“Emotions are high. It’s devastating.”
In the short term, the breach has forced an immediate and entire water ban for residents and livestock in the affected area which earlier included Quesnel Lake, Polley Lake, Hazeltine Creek and Cariboo Creek, and now also includes the entire Quesnel and Cariboo river systems right up to the Fraser River.
In the long-term, however, many are worried the spill could have lasting impacts on fish and water quality in the pristine wilderness area.
Imperial Metals Corporations issued a statement about the disaster Tuesday, stating the tailings dam breach had stabilized and that they are working closely with provincial ministries, local agencies and emergency response officials.
“Our first priority is the health and safety of our employees and neighbours, and we are relieved no loss of life or injury have been reported. We are deeply concerned and are working to mitigate immediate effects and understand the cause,” stated the company, noting exact quantities of water and tailings discharged have yet to be determined.
The company further stated the cause of the breach is unknown and that the mine has been placed on care and maintenance, with no estimate of how long it will take to restore operations.
Whitmer said she and her husband Richard Rujanschi first received word about the breach through a phone call at 4 a.m. Monday alerting them that the tailings pond dam, located approximately eight kilometres upstream, had been breached at about 2 a.m. at Hazeltine Creek.
“We went outside and it sounded like Niagra Falls.”
Fearing what the breach would bring, Whitmer said they awoke friends who were visiting the couple, pulled water pumps out of the lake where they and most residents in the area get their drinking water from and removed their boat from the water.
“Now we have to wait and see,” she said.
On Tuesday, area residents, many of whom have spent their lives logging in the area, were surveying the next immediate threat to the community –– that being the “iceberg sized” log debris dumped by the spill into the lake which is moving toward Likely and its bridge.
“We are hoping it can be contained,” Whitmer said of the debris.
“If it comes down, then we are just starting our disaster.”
Yesterday afternoon, Brian Kynoch, President of Imperial Metals, issued a statement regarding the situation at Mt. Polley, giving some hope that the contents of the tailings pond may not be as bad as everyone fears.
“Water quality is a key issue affecting the health and well-being of the surrounding community. Ministry of Environment has been and continues to carry out water sampling in Quesnel Lake. We expect a good outcome from this sampling because the water discharged by the event already almost meets drinking water standards. Specifically, mercury has never been detected in our water and arsenic levels are about one-fifth of drinking water quality. We regularly perform toxicity tests and we know this water is not toxic to rainbow trout.
“We do know suspended solids from the tailings will need to settle out before the water meets suspended solids criteria. Observations at the mouth of Hazeltine Creek on Aug. 4 indicated solids were settling rapidly,” Kynoch stated.
Kynoch said the breach released approximately 10 million cubic metres of water into Polley Lake and Quesnel Lake, adding the company is now working with the Ministries of Forests and Environment to mobilize crews and equipment to collect and remove floating debris from Quesnel Lake.
“Polley Lake rose approximately 1.5 metres above normal height and steps are being taken to pump excess water into the Springer Pit to start dropping the water level back to normal. Based on the volume of Quesnel Lake, there was no visible rise in water elevation. We know Hazeltine Creek was scoured through its entire length leaving eroded banks. Access roads to this creek have been blocked and the creek is being posted for no access. The public is asked to stay away from Hazeltine Creek at this time.”
A public information session and update regarding the Mount Polley Mine Tailing Pond Breach was held in Likely at the community hall at 4 p.m. after the Tribune/Weekend Advisor press time. Representatives from the Cariboo Regional District, Ministry of Transportation and Infrastructure, Ministry of Environment, Interior Health and Mount Polley Mine were expected to be in attendance.