Mining Minister announces independent review of Imperial Metals' Mount Polley disaster

Mining Minister Bill Bennett pledges to "take responsibility" if his ministry's negligence is found to have contributed to the Mount Polley tailings breach. 

Mining Minister Bill Bennett announced an independent investigation into the Imperial Metals Mount Polley tailings disaster today. 

"The panel's recommendations will be implemented where appropriate to ensure that such an incident never happens again," Bennett said. He said if his ministry is found to have been "negligent" and to have contributed to the tailings failure, he will take responsibility accordingly. 

The panel of geotechnical experts, who were appointed with the support of the Xats'ull (Soda Creek) First Nations and Williams Lake band, are: 

Norbert Morgenstern, an advisor to consulting engineers 

Steven Vick, a geotechnical engineer who was involved in the investigation of the New Orleans' levee failures in 2005 

Dirk Van Zyl, a UBC mining engineering professor

Bennett said the panel will investigate the cause of the failure, which poured 10.5 million cubic metres of tailings water and 4 million cubic metres of contaminated sediment into the Cariboo and Quesnel river and caused a water ban in nearby communities. The investigation is expected to result in a final report, to be submitted to the BC government by January 30, 2015. 

Although the BC government has asserted that the cause for the tailings pond failure is unknown, a former Imperial Metals' employee, as well as engineers and independent consultant, had warned about the tailings facility's flaws in the past. In particular, consultant Brian Olding had specifically warned in 2011 that more water was coming into the pond than was going out, and former Imperial Metals foreman said in a recent interview: 

"AMEC is the company that was told to build the dam wider. But they just kept up smoke and mirrors...and got away with not doing it."
While there are few official reports, global engineering firm AMEC appears to have been contracted by Imperial Metals to raise the dam again last summer, in "the most cost efficient manner possible".

"I've talked to everyone, and there is no leading theory." Bennett asserted at the press conference, adding that the disaster came as a shock to everyone. "Tailings ponds are monitored 24 hours a day, seven days a week....there are people on the dam on a regular basis." 

There are currently 98 tailings ponds in BC -- some mines have several tailings ponds. The investigation could lead to changes for other mines operating in the province as well. 

Van Zyl, who was also present at the press conference, said he was "quite bothered" by the Mount Polley disaster, noting that most people don't expect such disasters to take place in British Columbia. 

He said there was worldwide interest in the Mount Polley disaster, and that it was too soon to say what the environmental impact of the tailings failure would be. 

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