A ‘Tail’ of Two Ponds – What B.C. Can Learn from Alberta’s Own Tailings Spill


“This is not just a small little pond either, is it?” said Ken Hudson, as I showed him a video of the latest tailings pond breach on Canadian soil. The high earthen dam was split open by the force of the water that came gushing out. Grey mud had scoured away all signs of the forest in it’s path. Polley lake shone milky emerald – a sign of heavy metal concentrations – where a once pristine environment flourished. On August 4, the tailings pond at Mount Polley gold and copper mine, near Likely British Columbia, spewed 10 million cubic metres of polluted water and 4.5 million cubic metres of contaminated silt into Lake Polley and Quesnel Lake. While it is a miracle nobody was crushed under the landslide, 300 residents of the area who relied on drinking water from the lakes have been advised of a complete water ban, and citizens all the way down the Frasier River, which these systems flow into, are speculating about the effect this toxic spill will have on important salmon spawning areas.

The Obed tailings spill dumped hundreds of thousands of cubic metres of sediments into waterways. Berms on the Plante river try and stop contaminates from entering the Athabasca River.

The Obed tailings spill dumped hundreds of thousands of cubic metres of sediments into waterways. Berms on the Plante river try and stop contaminates from entering the Athabasca River. Source – Alberta Environment

I met with Ken, who is the President of the Fort Smith Métis Local, to ask him about the Obed coal mine spill that occurred just 9 months, 5 days previous. Because it occurred in the Athabasca watershed, it promised that a poisonous plume was creeping down north. Concerns about safety of drinking water shook Fort Smith and, indeed, many small communities along the Athabasca and Slave Rivers at the time. The plume came and went, and continuous testing of the rivers, which many communities draw their water from, shows there is no trace of the spill compared to baseline studies. Yet, the disaster continues to unfold. There is still a huge load of sediments in waterways near Hinton that threaten to be be disturbed every spring thaw and send toxins into the river system. The cleanup effort is finding very difficult to remove the solids from the environment without further disturbing and sending them downstream. I asked Ken to share what he experienced through the ordeal, as well as his ongoing concerns, with residents of B.C. who now get to deal with this mess.

The first thing Ken told me was shocking. It took two weeks for Alberta to formally let the government of the NWT know what was going on, and when they did, they minimized all their concerns right off the hop.

“The thing that concerned me about the spill that happened last year was the attitude of some of the government officials, even from our government. They just kind of dismissed it by saying ‘well, the Athabasca only makes up 15% of the Slave River so it’s not a big concern.’ And I was thinking if I took 15% of their glass of water and put some crap in there, would they drink it? That’s the way I think you got a look at things, on a smaller scale. That was the attitude that the government came up with. And really if you think about it on the other hand, what could they do? It’s not like they could strain the whole river and get the contaminants out. So they’ve got to lessen the worries of people. They just say things like 15% of the water, they minimize it.”

It’s not like they could strain the whole river and get the contaminants out. So they’ve got to lessen the worries of people. They just say things like 15% of the water, they minimize it.

The plume passed Fort Smith months ago and water quality tests as normal. Yet Ken and other members of the community have lingering concerns about the quality of their drinking water and the lasting effects this spill will have.

“It’s still a concern, this is not something that just went by us. It accumulated on shore I’m sure, it accumulated in the bottom of the river, some of the heavier stuff. It will eventually come down here in years to come. You’ve got to be concerned long-term in those things, not just say ‘the plume went by us and you’re safe.

 You’d think there would be a real call to look at these tailing ponds…and damned if it doesn’t pop up less than a year later?

Polley Lake a creamy, emerald green from heavily mineralized water from the tailings pond breach. For more photos visit Global News.

Polley Lake a creamy, emerald green from heavily mineralized water from the tailings pond breach. For more photos visit Global News.

“That’s something interesting to watch with this new spill. Is B.C. going to say the same things as Alberta did? ‘The plume is now gone past you and it’s almost no threat now and every things back to normal.’ That’s bullshit. These effects are long-lasting. It will affect fish, it’s terrible. The government has allowed these things happen in a short period of time. You’d think there would be a real call to look at these tailing ponds, and that’s one of the things that I been saying right from the start. How many other potential sites are around our river systems that could affect us, and damned if it doesn’t pop up less than a year later?

“Earl Evans, our wildlife guy, brings up something interesting too. In a flood situation in the spring where these contaminants go further than just the river, they go on to the side, they actually fill up the little sloughs and perch basins on the side of the rivers. It’s a renewal of the water for the whole country, the spring floods. So these contaminants settle into the mud from this flood. In the slave River, if it flooded anywhere there’s a layer of mud. So the contaminants settle in there and we’ve got new growth of the willows and other plants. The moose and rabbits and all kinds of things feed off those plants. So what long-term effects does that have? Years ago we were warned, and people were warned around Fort Chipewyan, not to eat too many moose around there because they’re contaminated. We got to worry about things like that you know?

…it just boggles my mind how we even allow that to happen. Or do we even have control over these things? Do we have a say? And I think not.

“I really think that we could just sit back and wait for the next tailings breach to happen, but I think that the government has to take a look at these pond sites that could affect our water systems and pump them somewhere else. Spend this money and pump them away from our lakes and rivers! To have tailings ponds in those locations close to rivers, it just boggles my mind how we even allow that to happen. Or do we even have control over these things? Do we have a say? And I think not.

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About Michael Tyas

Michael Tyas is the managing editor of One River News. He graduated the University of Manitoba with an honours degree in environmental studies, and is a professional videographer and video trainer. He produced the feature length documentary "One River, Many Relations" in Fort Chipewyan. He continues to work with indigenous communities to share their stories around resource extraction, industrial development, and impacts on traditional territories.
  • Roop m

    With today’s oil glut….
    Isn’t a barrel of water more expensive than a barrel of oil?
    Lol that water is more valuable as a captured and bottled product than Alberta oil!
    Lol Canada is stupid

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