While scientists and conservationists say the total extent of damage from the tailings pond breach at Mount Polley won’t be known for weeks, the impact could be widespread.
“It could take anything from weeks to decades to recover, depending on the scale of this,” says Phil Owens, a member of the Quesnel River Research Centre.
“Once Mt. Polley provides further information, then we’ll be in a better position to assess the damage. We don’t know how it will affect surface water or ground water, for example,” says Owens, a professor of Environmental Science at the University of Northern British Columbia.
“This is going to take a long time.”
A report from Environment Canada issued last year shows the disposals at the mine included lead, arsenic, zinc, mercury and phosphorus among many other elements.
Owens is heading to the area today to get a first-hand look at the damage, which began when the tailings pond at Mount Polley Mine broke open, spilling over five million cubic metres of sludge into Hazeltine Creek.
“Hazeltine Creek has been devastated,” he said. “Systems do recover. But it can take decades or longer.”
Owens said there are a number of things that will need to be determined to properly assess the damage. One is the specific mix of chemicals that have been discharged into the Quesnel River system.
“Some of the chemicals often related to mining activities, like arsenic, have a known propensity to move into ground water,” he said.
“It’s unlikely, but a possibility.”
Another question is the impact this will have on the sockeye salmon run, expected to be heavy this year.
“You’re talking about Hazeltine Creek, Quesnel Lake, Quesnel River, then the Fraser. Clearly that’s a major salmon system,” said Mark Angelo, the founder of World Rivers Day.
“We’re expecting a massive sockeye return. That concerns me deeply.”
There is also the larger question of how far the tailings will spread. Late on Monday, the Cariboo Regional District extended a water advisory for all of the Quesnel River system, right to the Fraser River.
However, Shelly Burich, manager of communications for the district, stressed that this was a precautionary measure.
For now, Angelo awaits the results of the first tests.
“It really does highlight just how vulnerable rivers are to something like this. A spill like this, the impacts will likely be long-lasting. It will take a long time to work its way through the system.”