Grand Chief compares Mount Polley disaster to Exxon Valdez

"Mount Polley will be synonymous with one of the most disastrous environmental events in British Columbia," said Chief Stewart Philip. 

Left, the devastation caused by the breaking of the Polley Mine damn into surrounding waters (Cariboo Regional District); Right, Chief Stewart Phillip (courtesy of David P Ball)

The Shuswap Tribal Nations Council and the Union of BC Indian Chiefs condemned the inaction of the BC Provincial Government and the Imperial Metals Company surrounding the "disastrous breach" of the Mount Polley Mine Tailing Pond.

"Like the Exxon Valdez, Mount Polley will be synonymous with one of the most disastrous environmental events in British Columbia," he said, adding that both events were preventable.

The collapse of the Mount Polley dam Monday morning caused 5 million cubic metres of fine sediment and toxic effluent to flow into the Hazeltine Creek and connecting waterways. The surrounding area, the STNC confirms, is in a state of emergency and in need of immediate action.

STNC said it had, over years, criticized Imperial Metals for a lack of adequate safety procedures, and that the company ignored its agreement to contact surrounding First nation communities when the disaster did strike. 

"This isn't just a Secwepemc nation problem, this is a provincial problem," said Chief Nelson Leon. "This breach affects each and every person and living organism in this province."

The collapse will affect waterways throughout southern BC, impacting safe drinking water, with the river exceeding drinkable levels of selenium by 2.8 times.

The numbers of Sockeye salmon, which were predicted to possibly have a record-breaking run this years, could be significantly harmed with the spill.  For First Nations in the interior-- relying on the salmon for food, ceremonial and commercial purposes-- Mount Polley will have " an immediate and devastating effect,"  as they "may not be able to fish for salmon at all this year," the UBCIC confirms.

And yet the tragedy "could have been prevented," Phillip argued. The increasing de-regulation by the BC government has allowed for inadequate safety procedures in protection and prevention of the surrounding region. In 2011, a detailed report on the mine concluded that an adequate emergency plan "had not been developed yet."

"What we have now in BC and Canada," Phillip said, "are repugnant and reprehensible processes of rubber-stamp approvals that shamelessly pander to industry, tragically at the great expense of environmental devastation."

For Chief Judy Wilson, Secretary-Treasurer of the UBCIC, the negligence to follow through with safety procedures is a clear dismissal of Aboriginal rights and title by the BC government. "Our right to fish is meaningless if the fish are contaminated with or killed by arsenic, lead or mercury," she said.

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