Massive Mine Tailings Pond Blowout Makes “Coexist” Video Sadly Laughable

It's turned out to be a tough summer on the headwaters of British Columbia's famed Fraser River, as one of mining's largest disasters plays out in and above Quesnel Lake. On August 4, a roughly 1000-foot-long tailings pond dam on an open-pit copper and gold operation called the Mount Polley Mine blew out in spectacular fashion. The video of the blow-out is astounding and depressing—almost 6 million cubic yards of mining waste, carried along by 10 million cubic yards of contaminated water, scouring creeks, leveling forests, destroying roads and sweeping the whole mess into Quesnel Lake, which feeds the Quesnel River.

What the long-term effects will be on Hazeltine Creek (which before the spill was about six feet across, and is now a gulch over 150 feet wide), Quesnel Lake, and the Quesnel River are unknown. The Quesnel is a major tributary of the world-famous Fraser River, and is the spawning grounds for an estimated 1.5 million sockeye salmon each year, an essential part of the Fraser fishery that on very good years (which this one is expected to be) sees an estimated 23 million sockeyes come upriver from the Pacific Ocean. The fishery employs thousands of people and is a major part of British Columbia's $2.2 billion salmon economy.

On August 10th, mine operators were still pumping water from the blown-out tailings pond down Hazeltine, because the wastewater lake was refilling at an alarming rate and threatening another breach. Imperial Metals, the owner of the Mount Polley Mine, may face a $1 million (Canadian) fine for the breach.

If there is any humor to be found here at all, it’s very dark, and it’s on video. Before the disaster, the Canadian-owned Pebble Partnership, which proposes to create the world’s largest open pit mine in Alaska on and in the headwaters of Bristol Bay, was using the Mount Polley Mine as an example of how the Pebble Project would pose no threat to the world’s greatest salmon fishery. “It’s not about trading one resource for another, it’s about mining and fisheries coexisting,” says the cheery narrator of the cartoon.

The advertisement vanished from the Pebble Partnership's website after the Mount Polley dam collapsed, but my friend Sarah Gilman at High Country News found it hiding out in the jungles of the internet, and gave it a new home in her blog.

It is well worth the very short watching time.

I spent some time watching it back to back with the blowout video linked at the beginning of this post, and then I went home, gathered up my son and daughter and my wife and dog, and we went fishing and swimming in the river west of our house. I suggest you do something similar.