Forever is a really long time
It’s even longer than 500 years
Our friends in British Columbia have delivered a very important object lesson to us in Minnesota. It is just too bad that so much flora and fauna, including salmon and other fish, fish-eating raptors like eagles and osprey, marine mammals, and even the pelagic fish that feed on salmon have to perish to provide it.
The enormity of a sulfide mine tailings dam failure and how long its effects will last are just beginning to be understood.
It’s probably, practically speaking, forever. (That’s even longer than the 500 year water treatment window that was bandied about in the discussions about PolyMet Mining’s proposal!)
That’s the grim prognosis of an ocean pollution researcher from Vancouver regarding the Mount Polley mine’s tailings dam failure:
The massive release of materials from a mine tailings pond near Quesnel, B.C. is “virtually impossible to clean up,” according to a marine researcher — and may have already damaged salmon habitat beyond repair.
Dr. Peter Ross heads Vancouver Aquarium’s ocean pollution research program and said on Wednesday the spill likely spells death for the fish that use the affected waterways.
“That means, sudden, lethal injury to any fish or their feed … we expect that to be occurring now,” he said, referring to a large “pulse of toxic materials” washing downstream that heralds environmental impact to come.
Then comes the longer-term impact of silt and debris suffocating fish and their habitats.
“There have been cases where we’ve seen breaches of dams in the past that have filled in, essentially buried the gravel where different species of sockeye will spawn, and we’ve not seen a recovery,” Ross said.
Finally, anything that doesn’t get washed down can stay in riverbeds and be consumed by wildlife for generations [my link] to come.
According to Fisheries and Oceans Canada, which has banned fishing in affected waters, 1.52 million sockeye are expected to return to the Quesnel area this year.
When you look at Hazeltine Creek, a stream inundated by toxic sludge from the tailings basin, you can see why this is probably true.
Meanwhile the B.C. Energy and Mines Minister (like our Director of the Land and Minerals Division of the DNR) said recently:
Energy and Mines Minister Bill Bennett said an investigation is underway that would interview current and former employees at the Mount Polley mine.
He said the mine operator was warned once in May 2014 of rising levels at its tailings pond, but came into compliance afterwards by moving water into an empty pit. [Where the toxins could seep harmlessly into the groundwater!]
“The company has indicated they’re confident the levels of metals in the tailings are safe,” Bennett said.
“We obviously hope that they’re correct about that.”
Hope is such a wonderful thing in a regulator. One is reminded of Dusty Springfield:
Wishin’ and hopin’ and thinkin’ and prayin’
Minister Bennett was AWOL for several days after the dam failed, and yet this is the best that he and his comm flaks could come up with.
Wishin’ and hopin’ and thinkin’ and prayin’ are apparently all the regulators have got, or ever had. Here’s the Vancouver Sun’s op-ed columnist Stephen Hume:
[The Mount Polley dam failure] would be bad enough if this was an isolated incident, but it’s not. Spills like this are not uncommon in the regulatory culture championed by the current Liberal government in Victoria.
The University of Victoria’s Environmental Law Centre warned in 2012 that environmental assessment certificates for mines issued by government are often “vague and unenforceable.”
It said that by 2008 the number of mine inspections had fallen to half what they were in 2001. Small wonder — Ministry of Environment staff shrank by 25 per cent. The chief mining inspector said he had insufficient staff to complete the annual mine monitoring reports required.
“This ramshackle enforcement regime is not good enough for an industry that can create environmental and financial catastrophes,” the study said.
The BC government allowed a dangerous condition at Mount Polley to fester. Article after article, and speaker after speaker, have bemoaned the lickspittle regulatory culture in B.C. which seems, frankly, like a bunch of cheerleaders for the mining industry.
What is this to us? you ask.
Probably quite a lot. Some of you will remember way back to March when the Chicago office of the EPA awarded the PolyMet SEIS an “E-2” rating and the Minnesota DNR broke out the pom-poms and chanted:
While the federal Environmental Protection Agency has lingering concerns about potential impacts from a proposed copper-nickel mining operation in northern Minnesota, the agency boosted the project’s environmental review rating Thursday.
“This is what you’d consider a passing grade and moves us toward the final EIS (environmental impact statement) preparation. This is the rating that the DNR was hoping to achieve,” said Minnesota Department of Natural Resources spokesman Chris Niskanen.
The article continues:
The EPA doesn’t have an official veto over the PolyMet Mining Corp. project, Niskanen said, but its voice is important.
Four years ago, the EPA gave the Draft Environmental Impact Statement on the project its lowest rating — “Environmentally Unsatisfactory – Inadequate” — which sent the company and the DNR back to the drawing board.
The rating this time — on what’s now called the Supplemental Draft Environmental Impact Statement — was “Environmental Concerns,” the second-highest category out of four. But the EPA also characterized the statement as containing “Insufficient Information.”
“We appreciate the extensive improvements to the project and the clarity and completeness of the environmental review,” the EPA said in a letter to the DNR and its co-lead agencies, the U.S. Forest Service and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
However, “there remain a number of areas where potential environmental impacts should be more effectively addressed, and where the project description and evaluation … should be improved,” the letter said.
What it means, said Niskanen, is that “the EPA is not finding serious deficiencies in the SDEIS, and that the proposed project does not need substantial changes.”
PolyMet is proposing what would be Minnesota’s first copper-nickel mine. It involves a mine near Babbitt and processing plant near Hoyt Lakes in northeastern Minnesota.
The company and business groups are touting the prospect of up to 360 permanent jobs and more than 600 related jobs, along with temporary construction jobs. They say the state’s environmental regulations are strong enough to safeguard water and other natural resources.
Opponents are concerned about potential sulfuric acid pollution. They worry the company is overestimating how much polluted seepage it will be able to contain.
By the time the public comment period for the Supplemental Draft Environmental Impact Statement ended Thursday, more than 49,000 comments had been received, Niskanen said.
It will take several months to digest those, he said. The next step is to publish a final Environmental Impact Statement, which will include another public comment period.
That document will form the basis for the following phase, which is permit approval.
“Everything that we’ve been doing up to this point is the research to make sure that the project meets key environmental laws and that the project can be done in an environmentally safe way,” Niskanen said. “That next part is the actual permit that is the contract that puts all that in paper.”
Mining Truth, a coalition of environmental groups, issued a statement Thursday saying PolyMet has gone from an F grade to “incomplete.” Getting an “insufficient information” rating after four years of remedial work is “shocking,” the group said.
The group said it shares concerns raised by the EPA related to treatment of polluted water, capture of discharge, wetland protection and financial assurance for long-term water treatment. [emphasis added]
Only in the world of Candide’s Dr. Pangloss did the SEIS get a passing grade.
And notice that Niskanen seems to think it is the DNR that got the passing grade. This bunch is falling all over itself to issue a permit.
I think they are, in Dusty’s words, Wishin’ and hopin’ and thinkin’ and prayin’.
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