Residents calling it an environmental disaster: tailings pond breach at Mount Polley Mine near Likely, BC

WATCH: The scale of Monday’s disaster at the Mount Polley Mine is becoming more clear tonight.  Reporter John Daly has more on how authorities are responding to the tailings breach

Local residents are calling it an environmental disaster.

A breach of the tailings pond on Mount Polley Mine sent five million cubic metres of toxic waste into Hazeltine Creek, Quesnel Lake and Polley Lake, with fears it could spread far and wide in the coming days.

Residents in the area, along with visitors to waterways near the Mount Polley Mine close to Likely, B.C., have been issued a complete water ban. Affecting close to 300 homes, it extends to the entire Quesnel and Cariboo River systems up to the Fraser River, including Quesnel Lake, Cariboo Creek, Hazeltine Creek and Polley Lake.

People in Quesnel are also being asked to avoid using water from the Quesnel River, and late in the day the Cariboo Regional District extended the water advisory right to the Fraser River – although they said that was a precautionary measure.

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WATCH: Aerial view of the destruction from the Mount Polley Mine tailings pond breach

There are already concerns that the total damage will be immense. The sheer volume of toxic slurry from the pond – equivalent to 2,000 Olympic-sized swimming pools – caused Hazeltine Creek to expand from four feet in width to 150, and some of the sludge has already made its way into Quesnel Lake and Polley Lake.

READ MORE: Concerns about Mount Polley tailings pond were raised 3 years ago

Phil Owens, a professor at the University of Northern British Columbia and researcher with the Quesnel River Research Centre, says it’s impossible to know at this stage where the tailings will stop.

“Once something starts, it will just cascade down through the chain,” he said.

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“We don’t know when it will stop, and we don’t know when it will move through the system.”

Al Richmond, the Cariboo Regional District Chair and Area G Director told Global News that clean-up is premature at this point and officials are still assessing the situation.

“Our concern mainly is first of all for life and limb and there’s been no one injured in this event and for that we’re thankful,” he said. “Our next concern is for the community of Likely and those folks living around Likely that their water supply is safe and potable for them to use.”

WATCH: An environmental disaster is unfolding in the Cariboo. Catherine Urquhart reports.

The Ministry of Environment said the breach at Mount Polley Mine happened in the middle of the night on August 4. The ministry. along with the Cariboo Regional District (CRD), RCMP, Central Cariboo Search and Rescue and emergency management crews are investigating and assessing the possible environmental impact.

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Mount Polley Mine is an open pit copper and gold mine, which is operated by Imperial Metals Corporation. The dam that holds back the tailings pond is an earth-filled dam.

MAP: Route from Mount Polley Mine to Williams Lake

The Horsefly Likely Forest Service Road has been washed out at Hazeltine Creek, but the Likely Bridge is not affected at this time.

Rob Hood, president of the Likely Chamber of Commerce, told Global News that the Cedar Point Provincial Park campground has also been evacuated.

There are concerns around the debris and chemicals from the tailing ponds coming down into Quesnel Lake, Hood says, where approximately 300 people get their drinking water. Others fear the billions of litres of contaminated water could pollute other water ways in the area. The alert will remain in place until test results are completed.

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READ MORE: Water from breached tailings pond near Likely B.C. is almost drinkable: President

Likely resident, Larry Chambers says he was woken at 3 a.m. and could hear the sounds of rushing water. “I could hear the roar like a 747 jet,” he told Global News.

Chambers describes Polley Lake as “milky green” and says the flood is bringing in a ton of debris. Residents described a stench in the air and dead fish washing up.

MAP: Mount Polley Mine Infrastructure.

From Imperial Metals.

WATCH: The resource industry is BC’s fastest growing economic sector and tailing pond breaches don’t help generate confidence among people already wary about environmental risks. Jas Johal reports.

Several employees of the mine, who wished to remain anonymous to protect their jobs, said the same tailings pond had a minor breach three months ago.

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Common minerals and elements found in tailings – which is the waste material left over from the extraction of metals – can include: arsenic, mercury, sulfur and cyanide.

A spokesperson from the Ministry of Environment told Global News that, “further monitoring and testing of waterways will be required before the full extent of potential environmental impacts can be determined. Steps are being taken to put those processes in place.”

Imperial Metals has issued the following statement:

Imperial Metals Corporation reports the tailings storage facility at its Mount Polley mine was breached, releasing an undetermined amount of water and tailings in the early morning of August 4. The cause of the breach is unknown at this time.

Senior company management are at the mine site and are working with mine operating personnel, local agencies, provincial ministry officials and the engineers of record to assess the extent of the breach and the impact of the released water and tailings on the surrounding area.

The Company will provide further information when confirmed and available.

RELATED VIDEO: Reporter Jas Johal spoke with Imperial Metals last year about BC Hydro’s Northwest Transmission Line 



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Aerial photo of the lake and breach, Global News. Global News
Aerial photo of the breach site, Global News. Global News
Polley Lake after the tailings breach. Photo by Larry Chambers.
Polley Lake after the tailings breach. Photo by Larry Chambers.
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Polley Lake after the tailings breach. Photo by Larry Chambers.
Polley Lake after the tailings breach. Photo by Larry Chambers.
Polley Lake after the tailings breach. Photo by Larry Chambers.
Polley Lake after the tailings breach. Photo by Larry Chambers.
Before and after, credit Elaine Lucas. Elaine Lucas
Post-breach, credit Larry Chambers. Larry Chambers
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Where the tailings came down, credit Larry Chambers. Larry Chambers
Quesnel Lake, near the site of the breach, via Facebook.
Where Hazeltine Creek enters Quesnel Lake.
Where Hazeltine Creek enters Quesnel Lake.
Where Hazeltine Creek enters Quesnel Lake.
Where Hazeltine Creek enters Quesnel Lake.


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