Mount Polley disaster was preventable, report leaves more questions than answers

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VANCOUVER – The report from an expert panel of engineers confirms that the Mount Polley tailings pond failure was avoidable, but leaves British Columbians with more questions than answers, said New Democrat leader John Horgan.

“The takeaway from the report is that this was an eminently avoidable environmental disaster,” said Horgan. “It exposed a system that failed to identify and mitigate the risk of allowing the dam to be expanded repeatedly without ever revisiting whether the foundation could handle it.”

Horgan said that not only was the dam expanded repeatedly with no revaluation of the underlying conditions of original design, but the company and the government failed to act on serious identified problems including the steep slope of the dam wall that was supposed to be temporary, and the need to buttress the dam.

Horgan pointed out the panel observed “The design was caught between the rising water and the mine plan, between the imperative of raising the dam and the scarcity of materials for building it. Something had to give and the result was over steepened dam slopes, deferred buttressing and the seemingly ad hoc nature of dam expansion that so often ended up constructing something different from what had originally been designed.”

“This government has a lot of work to do to rebuild public confidence in mining in B.C.,” said Horgan. “Mining is vitally important to our economy, providing great jobs for thousands of British Columbians. Unfortunately this report only continues to undermine confidence.”

Horgan commended the panel for their work in identifying the cause of the tailings pond breach that spilled 25 million cubic meters of mining waste, sludge and water crashing through a creek and into Quesnel Lake on Aug. 4, 2014.

Horgan said the government is doing the right thing by requiring operators of other tailings dams to look for the same structural problems that underlie the Mount Polley failure, but that it doesn’t go far enough.

“Looking for this one exact problem at other mine sites is fine – in fact it is vitally important – but British Columbians will just be left wondering what other unknown problems there might be. They deserve answers about how the government is going to earn their confidence back,” said Horgan.

“We need to have the proper expertise within the mines ministry to review and evaluate mine and dam safety. That’s not going to happen by continuing to cut inspections and regulations like the B.C. Liberals have been doing for more than a decade.”