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21st July 2022
Continued from Part one

“I think we deserve to know whether a facility received a very high or an extreme failure consequence rating, because there’s a permanent population at risk of being killed,” Berchtold says.

Tailings dam safety even more precarious due to climate change, report says

The climate crisis also adds to the questionable future of B.C. tailings dams. With more extreme and more frequent weather events, infrastructure could be at greater risk of failure if we don’t take climate change into account in designs.

There need to be additional safety factors built into mine tailings dam designs to account for extreme weather events, says Jamie Kneen, of MiningWatch Canada. “An atmospheric river that’s going to dump a metre of rain on you all of a sudden is going to require some real safeguards in the design that maybe wouldn’t have been there previously.”

Last November, southwest B.C. was hit hard with extreme rain, “atmospheric rivers” and flooding. When the Nooksack River overflowed and breached its dyke, the floodwaters filled what is now known as the Sumas Prairie and parts of Abbotsford. It was one of Canada’s largest flooding disasters. Thousands of livestock died and an estimated 15,000 people were evacuated from their homes. The toxic water spread through nearby communities contaminated with human and animal waste, asbestos, oil and gas.

Eight months later, debris is still being cleaned up.

According to the report, the heavily populated Fraser River basin is predicted to see more frequent and more intense atmospheric river events as a result of climate change. That area alone is home to more than one-third of all of the mine sites across the province, with 27 operating or proposed mines.

“People need to be aware of the risks upstream,” and the heavy metal contamination that can come with that, Kneen says.

Goehring, of B.C.’s mining association, said tailings storage facilities “are already required to be built to withstand extreme events, such as the atmospheric rivers and heat dome B.C. has recently experienced.” For Highland Valley Copper’s part, Steeves said the mine’s tailings facility “is designed and operated to account for climate change, including capacity to store the probable maximum flood, which is greater than a 10,000-year period event.”

In addition to current and proposed mines across the province, there are 57 sites that are closed or sites that have tailings facilities that need to be maintained. “A tailings dam can never be demolished because it has to confine those tailings forever,” Emerman says. They need to be inspected, monitored and maintained to prevent failure.
And because it’s impossible to build something that will last forever, “it means that at some point in the future … the tailings dam is going to fail,” Emerman says. He questions the value of a mine site that might be productive for a few years but leave a tailings dam facility that will have to be maintained in perpetuity.

With tailings dams increasing in size and potentially being built on mountains or in the headwaters of major rivers, it’s important that these projects are done right or not at all, Kneen says. “I think the bottom line is that if it can’t be designed and constructed safely, then it should not be allowed to happen.”

“The pace to open new mines is just overwhelming,” Emerman says. “That’s a very dangerous situation where people are in a big rush to do something very risky. My basic recommendation is people need to slow down and stop and think.”

BC Mining Law Reform and SkeenaWild are making a number of recommendations with the release of the report. They’re calling on the province to commit to reducing B.C.’s tailings storage facilities by half — a recommendation that was made nearly a decade ago by the Mount Polley Expert Panel. They’re asking for clear direction on how to manage closed sites that need ongoing inspection, monitoring and maintenance to reduce the consequences of failure. They’re also calling for a ban on all upstream tailings dam construction and for future sites to be built with lower failure consequences or not built at all.

A matter of mining versus salmon along the Fraser River

Populations of sockeye heading for the Fraser River have decreased, but survived years of threats. “There was always fishing in the Fraser River,” Shaun Strobel recalls. “Every single year and up and down the coast … and it was always lots of fish coming in.”

He says he used to be able to fish from June through October. Now he’s just waiting to see what this August will bring. A mine might be productive for a few years, but the salmon run has an intrinsic value for people along the Fraser River, he says.

“We work so hard to fish sustainably,” Sonia Strobel says. “One catastrophic failure of a tailings dam could wipe this out permanently … and it’s painful and tragic to think about that.”

“It can’t be overstated how devastating that possibility is and how important it is that policymakers, lawmakers, all levels of government, municipal, provincial, Indigenous, federal, are all working together in unity around protecting those communities and preventing this kind of disaster.”

Updated July 14, 2022, at 10:07 a.m. PST: This story has been updated to clarify that the group tasked with reviewing B.C.’s Health, Safety and Reclamation Code includes First Nations members and labour representatives, as well as industry.

Updated on July 15, 2022, at 11:33 p.m PST: this story was updated to correct the number of people in the direct flood path of Highland Valley Copper mine as approximately 4,000, rather than 3,600, which is for the town of Hope, B.C., only. The number of people evacuated during the flooding in southwestern B.C. was also updated to an estimated 15,000 from 3,300, which is for Abbotsford alone.