GUEST BLOG by Jill Bathke, Natural Resource Scientist
On August 4th, the dam holding together a tailings basin at the Mount Polley Mine in British Columbia, Canada failed. The result was
the discharge of
2.6 billion gallons of water and 5.9 million cubic yards of potentially toxic silt into wetlands, streams and lakes covering an area the size of NYC's
Central Park. The current projected cost of removing the toxic waste? $200- 500
million; although Dr. Peter Ross, head of Vancouver Aquarium’s ocean pollution research program, has said that the waste will be “virtually impossible to clean
What does a tailings basin dam failure at a copper and gold mine in British Columbia, Canada have to do with PolyMet? One correlation (of many) is Knight
This consulting firm completed the initial Mount Polley tailings basin design and engineering work, in addition to supervising its construction. Knight
Piesold is also one of the reviewers of the
PolyMet tailings basin design proposed in the Supplemental Draft Environmental Impact Statement (SDEIS). If the name rings a bell, they are also the same
company who told the EPA in 2013 that "[m]odern dam design
technologies are based on proven scientific/engineering principles, and there is no basis for asserting that they will not stand the test of time.”
As Aaron Brown wrote in the StarTribune, "Mining the minerals we use in everyday
products is inherently risky and, to some degree, inherently necessary. The question for Northern Minnesota is whether the need for and benefit from new
nonferrous mining is greater than the risks and costs. Incidentally, this is what mining companies talk about behind boardroom doors. Communities and
states should do the same, and lay out the considerations plainly in public view. What happened in British Columbia simply must not be allowed to happen
in Minnesota; the effects would be culturally and economically devastating."
In response to the concern of a tailings basin failure in Minnesota, PolyMet's spokesperson has said that PolyMet has "a high level of confidence that our tailings impoundment
is and will remain safe" and that third-party engineering consultants will be hired to confirm the safety of their plans once the project is permitted. It is likely that the operators of the Mount Polley Mine also told Canadian regulators a similar story.
Unfortunately, as MCEA sees it, PolyMet's stated confidence isn't worth a grain of tailings without a comprehensive analysis of PolyMet's tailings basin
design, plans for on-going monitoring and contingencies and a realistic financial assurance package.
PolyMet proposed to use a much older unlined tailings basin, formerly used by Erie and LTV for taconite tailings, and MCEA's experts have identified the design as "the highest risk for seismic and static failure." To my knowledge, no one has assessed the technological or economic feasibility of cleaning up the Mount Polly site. All reports indicate that there is no contingency plan in place (there isn't one at PolyMet either, at least not one that has been disclosed), and it seems highly unlikely that the company put adequate financial assurance aside to cover this kind of catastrophe.
Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy
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