This year, the Maine Legislature rejected weak regulations that would have allowed mining companies to pollute our waters and shift massive cleanup costs to Maine taxpayers. A recent mine disaster in Canada shows that lawmakers made the right decision. The disaster occurred when the tailings dam collapsed at the Mt. Polley copper and gold mine in British Columbia. More than 2 billion gallons of wastewater and nearly 6 million cubic yards of sludge flowed into nearby lakes and streams.
The impacts have been huge. The spill transformed nearby Hazeltine Creek from a 6-foot-wide stream with a run of endangered Coho salmon into a 150-foot river of sludge contaminated with toxic heavy metals. This sludge also flowed into Quesnel Lake, considered the cleanest deep water lake in the world. Quesnel Lake supports a run of about 2 million sockeye salmon. Salmon will arrive in the area in September, so the timing of the spill was truly terrible.
Quesnel Lake also is a source of drinking water for local residents. Canadian officials claim the water is drinkable a moderate distance from the spill, but they have not done extensive testing and the government has issued a “Do Not Use” order for waters in the immediate area.
The Imperial Metals Corporation began mining at Mt. Polley in 1997. This is a modern mine, not an old “legacy” mine. JD Irving, the Canadian company that led the push for weak mining regulations in Maine, has stated many times that modern mines have solved the terrible pollution problems of the past. The Mt. Polley disaster proves this false. Knight-Piesold Consulting, which designed the Mt. Polley tailings dam, stated the following about modern tailings dams in a memo to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency about its proposed dam for a mine in Alaska: “modern dam design technologies are based on proven scientific/engineering principles and there is no basis for asserting that they will not stand the test of time.”
Tailings dams need to last forever in order to protect downstream waters, wildlife, and communities. Mt. Polley’s tailings dam lasted only 17 years.
Canadian regulators warned the Imperial Metals Corporation numerous times about problems with the Mt. Polley mine. In 2011, an independent report concluded that wastewater levels in the tailings pond were too high and could lead to dam failure. The report also concluded the company had no contingency plan in place in case of a catastrophic breach, and it remains unclear whether the company even has one now. Canadian regulators warned Imperial Metals Corporation about the water levels in the tailings pond in May of 2014. Unfortunately, the regulators didn’t actually do anything, such as force the mine to change its operations and culture. The clear lesson for Maine is that metal mining requires very strict regulations and regulators willing to enforce them.
No one knows how much it will cost to clean up the Mt. Polley disaster. Initial estimates range from $200 million to $400 million. But Bryan Kynoch, president of Imperial Metals Corporation, has stated his company does not have $400 million: “If it’s $400 million, then we are going to have to get mines generating to make that money to do the cleanup. We don’t have $400 million in the bank, so we’ll have to make that to do it.”
“Financial assurance” is one of the issues Maine lawmakers have confronted. The Mt. Polley disaster shows why strict financial assurance regulations are so important. Without them, mining companies are able to cause terrible pollution, even if they lack the money to clean it up. If a mining company wants to do business here, it needs to put sufficient cash in a secure trust up front to pay for a worst-case scenario cleanup. Otherwise, Maine people will be stuck with the cleanup costs.
Maine lawmakers, both Democrats and Republicans, had the good sense this year to say no to weak mining regulations. They understood the dangers of poorly regulated mining. Anyone who thinks strong regulations and enforcement are unnecessary for modern mines need only look at the Mt. Polley disaster and its chaotic aftermath.
Nick Bennett is staff scientist for the Natural Resources Council of Maine.