Imperial Metals was a miner in best-practices process at time of breach

Premier Christy Clark flying over Mount Polley Mine after tailing ponds breach. Image from Facebook.

Imperial Metals was in the process of obtaining a mining best-practices certification when the tailings pond dam at the company's Mount Polley Mine burst on Monday.

The dam failure spilled 10 million cubic metres of water and 4.5 million cubic metres of potentially toxic, metals-laden sand into Polley Lake and Quesnel Lake.

Mining Association of Canada president Pierre Gratton said Imperial Metals was in the second year of the association's three-year Towards Sustainable Mining (TSM) certification program. The third year, which Imperial Metals had not yet completed, requires an external audit of the company's management and safety systems.

"TSM has its roots in tailings failures that took place in the 1990s," Gratton said. "The primary reason for those failures was not engineering design, but overall management of the facilities. With tailings being one of the industry's biggest risks, it was felt that [oversight] for tailings was not at the level it should be. What was found is that it wasn't making its way to the top, it was being managed at a local level."

Between August 1995 and April 1998, Canadian companies were involved in major tailings spills in Guyana, Spain and the Philippines.

The spills prompted the Mining Association of Canada to develop a series of tailings management protocols, culminating in 2004 with the introduction of the Towards Sustainable Mining certification program, which is "the world standard" in tailings and mine management, Gratton said. Participation in the TSM program is mandatory for all association members, and the first publicly-reported external audits were completed in 2006.

 

Imperial Metals reopened the Mount Polley mine in October, 2005.

Every three years participants are required to hire an external company to perform an audit and rank each mine on a number of performance indicators in crisis management planning, tailings management, safety and health, biodiversity conservation management, energy and greenhouse gas management, and aboriginal and community outreach.

The ranking system uses a five-rank, letter grade system from C to AAA, with an A meaning full compliance with TSM standards.

"It's been able to drive significant performance gains. We are now able to report over 80 per cent of our sites are at level A or better, and that wasn't always the case," Gratton said. "It's all beyond regulation, there is an assumption that you're following all the regulations in your area. It's a system to check every aspect of your facilities."

To receive level A certification for tailings management a company must have formal tailings management policies in place, have a developed and implemented tailings management system, assign accountability for tailings management to the CEO or COO of the company, and have operations, maintenance and surveillance manuals developed for each tailings impoundment. In addition, facilities must conduct annual reviews of all their tailings management systems and report their findings to the accountable executive.

"All of these together, we believe, should provide companies… and the public with an assurance that things won't go wrong," Gratton said. "A breach like we've just seen is now rare. Until this happened, we were feeling pretty proud of ourselves as an industry in Canada."

Gratton said its members represent approximately 70 per cent of metal and coal mines in Canada.

"[We have] pretty much all the major players and some of the smaller ones," Gratton said. "[The association] has typically represented the bigger companies, and it's only in recent years we have attracted the smaller players."

Gratton said Imperial Metals – which operates Mount Polley, the Sterling underground gold mine in Nevada, and is expected to open the Red Chris mine south of Dease Lake later this year – is considered a small player in Canadian mining. The company also has a 50 per cent interest in the Huckleberry copper mine southwest of Houston, B.C. and is a partner in the Ruddock Creek lead and zinc property north of Kamloops.

The TSM program has been an incentive for smaller companies like Imperial Metals to join the association, he said, because the association offers assistance for small miners to complete and comply with the certification program.

"One of the goals of TSM is to raise the bar across the industry," Gratton said.

A spokesperson for Imperial Metals did not return calls as of press time.

'It's confounding'

Angela Waterman, Mining Association of B.C. vice president of environmental and technical affairs, said it's far too early to speculate what may have caused the dam failure.

But she said the results of the industry and government reports on the incident will provide lessons for the industry moving forward.

"We're a highly-regulated industry, under both provincial and federal legislation. We have all sorts of safety requirements. There are regular inspections, and the companies are vigilant of their own inspections," Waterman said. "It's confounding. In the context of these things, it still happened."

 

Waterman said she expects the mining industry in B.C. will step up its level of vigilance in dam monitoring in the coming weeks and months.

"There are stringent rules in place, but we can always improve – we can always do more," Waterman said. "[With] 20/20 hindsight, we can always do more."

Enforcement Questioned

A 2011 study published by the University of Victoria Environmental Law Centre questioned the provincial and federal governments' ability to enforce their environmental regulations.

The B.C. Chief Inspector of Mines annual reports showed, "… the number of mine visits reported showed a significant drop from over two thousand annually in 2001, to less than four hundred in 2004, before rebounding to just over one thousand visits in 2008 (only half the inspections done in 2001," the study says.

The Chief Inspector of Mines annual report for 2012 shows the number of mine visits ranged from 628 to 1,163 between 2009 and 2012.

"The provincial Environmental Assessment Office's (EAO's) lack of field presence, coupled with its lack of a viable compliance and enforcement strategy, are further challenges to the effective enforcement of provincial EA conditions," the study said. "Moreover… government staff report that successive staff and budget cuts have had significant impacts on their enforcement capabilities and they do not consider the enforcement of EA certificates to be within their mandate."

Under the B.C. Mines Act, environmental protect measures are specified as individual permit conditions, rather than standard legislation, creating situations where protection requirements are different from mine to mine, and even at different locations at the same mine site, the study says.

"For example, the Quinsam coal mine [located near Campbell River, B.C.] permit sets out monitoring and reporting requirements for three different locations. However, sulphate (a critical indicator of acid rock drainage) is required for some, but not all, of these locations," the study says. "Chronic failure to actually enforce permit conditions is exemplified by another incident at the Quinsam mine."

On Dec. 18, 2003 a breached settling pond at the Quinsam mine released 11,000 cubic metres of mine effluent, the study says.

"Although the permit required reporting of such incidents within 24 hours, government documents indicate the release was not reported to authorities until four days later. Under the former Waste Management Act, the ministry could have sought a substantial fine. However the government chose to warn the company instead of charging them, and gave the company a directive to update their environmental procedures manual," the study says. "Although the discharge permit mandated that the manual be updated annually, it had not been done since 1998."

Federally, the study showed Environment Canada statistics for enforcement actions under the Metal Mining Effluent Regulations and earlier Metal Mining Liquid Effluent Regulations ranged from 18 to 84 on-site inspections between 1998 and 2009. However off-site inspections increased steadily from 2006 to 2009, peaking at 1,366 in 2008-09.

"… Since online reporting began in 1998, there have been no convictions under the [regulations]," the report said. "Second, the trend indicates a movement towards off-site inspections rather than on-site field inspections. The dispersion of written warnings seems to correspond with the number of field inspections – this highlights the importance of field visits for adequate enforcement. Finally, spill and release occurrences were not reported until the 2006/2007 reporting period. However, once this data finally began being reported, it showed more than 20 spill occurrences annually suggesting stronger enforcement is needed to deter non-compliance."

The study called for increased on-site inspections, investments in hiring enforcement staff and greater enforcement of existing laws.

"Unfortunately the current lack of enforcement – combined with the willingness to relax permit conditions when faced with non-compliance – runs counter to both public sentiment and sound environmental management," the study says. "This places local communities and provincial taxpayers at significant risk."