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No start date in sight for Imperial Metals' Mount Polley spill cleanup

It's been 10 days since the tailings pond holding billions of litres of mining waste breached at the Mount Polley mine near Likely, B.C. sending arsenic and mercury-laced water and slurry into the Hazeltine Creek which feeds Quesnel Lake, a major source of drinking water and home to one quarter of the province’s sockeye salmon.

Yet local residents have no idea when cleanup of the spill will start, or even who is going to do it. Will it be Imperial Metals, the company that owns the mine? The federal or B.C. government? A third-party contractor? No one seems to have the answers.

On a recent trip to the Mount Polley spill site, the Vancouver Observer learned no cleanup crews are currently working on removing the tremendous amount of mining waste clogging up what used to be the Hazeltine Creek and spreading out into Quesnel Lake.

David Karn, media relations with the ministry of environment, was unable to provide any information or comment.

Imperial Metals, also reached out to for comment, was unable to respond by the time of publication.

On Tuesday, representatives from the Cariboo Regional District (CRD) announced a local drinking water ban placed on Quesnel Lake and the Quesnel River would be lifted after sampling showed the water was safe for consumption. The sampling was taken from the southeast corner of Quesnel Lake, which suggested that the water quality was similar to conditions before the tailings spill.

But a water use ban remains in effect for 100 metres surrounding the debris field at the convergence of the Hazeltine Creek and Quesnel Lake.

Coralee Oakes, local MLA and minister of community, sport and development told the Vancouver Observer that regular water testing will continue and that sample results will be made available online. The CRD will continue to supply residents and tourists with free drinking water and temporary showers at a forestry camp.

But community members have expressed strong concern over the remnants of the spill, which sit leaching into the lake, and a large cloudy plume of suspended solids in the water, visible from the air.

Richard Holmes, fisheries biologist with Cariboo Envirotech and local resident for 38 years, said sophisticated equipment is needed to survey the extent of the spill underwater.

“We’re talking with industry about getting some underwater cameras in there,” he said.

Holmes is working with the Xat'sull (Soda Creek) First Nation to ensure First Nations are involved in cleanup efforts, once they begin.

In the meantime, locals are left to speculate about lingering contaminants in their water.

Despite the recently-lifted drinking water ban, many residents admitted they will not drink the water.

Freshwater expert and biogeochemist Dr. David Schindler said random, localized sampling of contaminated water may not detect the damage done.

“I understand that considerable arsenic, mercury, cadmium, lead and copper were among the elements released,” he said. “All are extremely toxic.”

Schindler said he suspects the biggest long-term threat lies in areas where sediment from the spill overlaps with spawning and rearing habitat for fish.

“In the St. Lawrence River, most of the contamination of fish with mercury occurs at a few sites where contaminated sediment is deposited and [which] fish also use for feeding or nursery habitat,” he said.

But detailed knowledge of spill sites is usually scant, he said.

“Our monitoring of habitats around all industrial sites in important aquatic systems in this country is in serious need of upgrading,” he said. “Without background information on fish populations, habitats and toxic concentrations, it's almost impossible to determine how much damage is done.”

“Sometimes it is hard to believe that the lack of pre-accident information is not deliberate."

This article is part of a joint-venture between the Vancouver Observer and DeSmog Canada. Photo by Farhan Umedaly, Vovo Productions.

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