Both sides agree: protect environment -- Mount Polley drove home need for protections
We were with a delegation to northern Minnesota this week from the international human rights organization Amnesty International and the community of Likely, British Columbia. We are thankful to northern Minnesota for welcoming us. It was an honor to be here in this beautiful place visiting with members of the public; representatives of the Fond du Lac Band; and state, city, and county officials.
We were here to share some of our experiences from the catastrophic failure of a copper mine in our own beautiful backyard.
On Aug. 4, 2014, at one o'clock in the morning, a section of the Mount Polley copper mine tailings dam collapsed, sending more than 6 billion U.S. liquid gallons of toxic slurry down a 5½-mile stretch of creek into pristine Quesnel Lake in British Columbia. Quesnel Lake is the incubator for one third of all wild sockeye salmon swimming in British Columbia rivers. The runaway mine tailings now lie at the bottom of the lake.
The disaster affected drinking water, tourism, and wildlife. Secwepemc and surrounding Indigenous peoples, who have relied on salmon from the rivers flowing from Quesnel Lake for generations, are now sitting out their fourth fishing season over concerns about toxic contamination. Salmon, a healthy staple food, no longer fills people's cupboards and freezers, reducing their food security. The bioaccumulation of toxic mine chemicals could magnify these problems well into the future.
The government has been unable to answer our questions about long-term impacts on human health, but we know the impacts could last generations. The United Nations called on Canada to address damages caused by the disaster, especially to Indigenous peoples, and yet our Canadian government has failed to take action.
Imperial Metals, the owner of the Mount Polley mine, has done what has seemed the absolute minimum it can get away with. Company senior executives said they would restore the area to pre-breach conditions. So far that has been a lie. We are outraged the company instead has been rewarded with new licenses, renewed permits, deferrals of monthly hydroelectric bills, and permission to dump mine effluent into Quesnel Lake for five more years.
As soon as the first permit was approved, the public lost control over the situation. When seeking its permit to mine, Imperial Metals told us the mine would be zero discharge and that it wouldn't dump waste water into our environment. Then, after it went into production, it applied for a permit amendment to allow it to discharge wastewater because, it turned out, it didn't have the expertise to manage water properly onsite. It built up. (Apparently, it rains quite a lot in rainforests. We hear it rains a lot here, too.)
It is hard to stop a train once it leaves the station. The company applied for several new discharge permits and, over the years and often against the advice of its engineers, it built the dam walls higher and higher to contain the water.
Then the dam failed.
Public trust in our regulators and companies is shattered. We learned too late how ill-prepared and unwilling our officials were to protect us. We've wondered if the financial contributions the company made to political parties over the years influenced the government's decision to not issue fines or lay any charges for the disaster.
The Mount Polley disaster pulled back the curtain, revealing regulatory weaknesses, corporate greed, and an appalling lack of expertise and duty of care to British Columbians. Now, we must fight for justice and reparations for ourselves and future generations.
We hope that sharing our story helps you in Northeastern Minnesota fare better. Decision-makers must be clear that their responsibility is to Minnesotans and downstream communities. Adherence to human-rights obligations and protecting the public good — water, health, food — for all future generations is the foundation of good decision-making.
We urge Minnesotans to make human rights and the public good the foundation for decisions on the PolyMet copper mine proposal.
Tara Scurr and Doug Watt were members of an Amnesty International delegation which visited Duluth Monday and Tuesday. Scurr is a business and human rights campaigner with Amnesty International Canada. Watt is a resident of Likely, British Columbia. The delegation also included Jennie Green, co-chairwoman of the Business and Human Rights group for Amnesty International USA.