Like many of you, I was deeply disturbed this past Monday when I heard about the breach of the Mount Polley Mine tailings pond in the Cariboo region of Central B.C. Current reports suggest that 4.5 million cubic metres of metals-laden find sand was released into surrounding creeks, rivers, and lakes resulting in a complete drinking water ban and untold ecological damage.
While this environmental disaster should never have happened, its occurrence does provide us with the opportunity to reflect on how these types of events might be prevented in the future. Personally, I think at least two lessons can be gleaned from the tailings pond breach:
- Environmental regulations only offer protection if they are enforced. According to the B.C. Ministry of the Environment, various concerns about the tailings pond had been raised on at least five separate occasions in recent history–and Imperial Metals failed to adequately address these issues. While this may some quite obvious, environmental regulations are only effective if they are properly enforced and followed. The Ministry should have had the authority shut down the Mount Polley Mine until their environmental concerns were properly addressed. Overall, regulatory agencies should be given more power.
- This disaster illustrates a disturbing, greedy, capitalist, worldview. On their website, Imperial Metals’ states that:
“We are deeply concerned and are working to mitigate immediate effects and understand the cause…The cause of the breach is unknown at this time. The dam is an independently engineered structure that operated within design limits and specifications. Monitoring instruments and onsite personnel had no indication of an impending breach”
Based on reports from the B.C. Ministry of the Environment, however, Imperial Metals was aware of issues with the tailings pond. Not only did the company fail to address the Ministry’s concerns, Imperial Metals also ignored concerns raised by a third party environmental consultant who suggested that a structural engineer be brought in to examine the integrity of the tailings pond. The truth is–I believe–that Imperial Metals were willing to risk an environmental disaster because addressing the Ministry’s concerns would have taken time and cost money. In this way, Imperial Metals is not that different from any other capitalistic corporation looking to maximize profits and minimize costs–they were just unlucky.
Overall, this environmental disaster illustrates that things need to change. Collectively, we must shift our mindsets, and put the health of ourselves and our planet (which aren’t really separate) as the number one priority when doing business. It just makes sense.