Daniela Ginta writes for The Armchair Mayor News on Fridays.
COLUMN — On Aug. 4 the Mount Polley tailings dam collapsed, giving way to 10 million cubic metres of water and 4.5 million cubic metres of silt containing toxic chemicals from the Imperial Metals gold and copper mine. All of that went into Hazeltine Creek, Polley Lake and Quesnel Lake.
Pristine became yesterday’s reality, but if you were holding your breath in fear thinking that the collapse of the mud wall is an environmental disaster, you may now breathe freely, the officials say. Water tests look good, the toxic chemicals are dispersing as we speak and will likely not affect salmon or other fish.
B.C. Mines Minister Bill Bennett says it would be wrong to call it an environmental disaster. A mess is the concept that applies to this situation, Bennett told the Vancouver Sun last Saturday. He compared the damage to the one caused by avalanches.
Looks may be deceiving, though. Avalanches are destructive, but they’ve been happening since the beginning of time, and they do not come loaded with chemicals that kill wildlife and have the potential to affect the environment and people’s health.
What qualifies as an environmental disaster if the Mount Polley dam rupture doesn’t? How do we assess one, then? Who has time to argue over definitions?
The communities near Hazeltine Creek and Quesnel Lake likely don’t. For a few days, they were told not to drink or use the water for washing. A few days later, as if a wizard’s magic wand touched the very waters laced with chemicals, the ban was lifted and water was declared potable again.
Salmon may or may not be affected, the government’s spokespeople say, and chemicals are said to likely be diluted by the once pristine lake water. But this is not a fairy tale.
History has taught us some very painful lessons over the years, since the chemical revolution has exploded: one is that many chemicals do not go away in time (see the case of polychlorinated biphenyls or PCBs that are still with us many years after being banned, and still causing chronic health problems), and the other is that lack of accountability makes for a messy situation. A political, environmental, human health disaster in one, with a big side of betrayed trust.
After all, this is a democracy. We choose certain people to govern us, we put our trust in them and when this happens, we find ourselves at a fork in the road: either we voice concerns and act on them, hopefully prevent future disasters, or we self-justify the choices that are being made for us. In case of mining, that we need to mine or else.
That’s where it gets messy. People who have the financial power to open a mine do not always show concern towards possible safety issues. Nor do they roll up their sleeves and open their wallets to do the cleaning.
Should a disaster happen – and this is the most incomprehensible issue of our times – they are not accountable, not to the extent they should be.
In case of Mount Polley disaster, clean water should’ve been available right away to people in the area, as much as they needed and for as long as they needed until their local water becomes usable again, paid for by Imperial Metals.
Independent testing companies, and not just the government, should run enough water tests and assess objectively. After all, people will be drinking that and use it to wash, water their gardens and fish in it.
Environmental assessments of the damage should’ve started that very next day – financial costs supported by Imperial Metals – in order to assess the magnitude of the disaster and proceed to cleanup and recovering of the wildlife affected by it.
Instead, we have a company that cannot foot the cleaning bill and will continue to operate.
Accountability be damned, at this point it looks like pain in a shareholder’s bottom. Why bother when mines bring profit (to whom?), ensure jobs for our fellow British Columbians (to how many?) and they don’t have to live with any of the consequences of their actions? Why bother when they do not drink the water their lack of proper planning and consideration created, and when their food does not include fish that may or may not be contaminated.
In the age of exaggerated, nauseating at times, political correctness, situations like this are a gross affront to all citizens who believe that having access to clean water is a basic human right. We tear up at the sight of many poor people around the world suffering from lack of clean water, yet mindless exploitation of natural resources can bring that reality in our backyard sooner than we think it possible.
Unless we bring on accountability. From personal actions to deeds that affect the health and well-being of many, accountability is a must.
If you smash into your neighbor’s car you are obligated by law to pay damages, it’s that simple; the law holds you accountable. No one should be above it.
Think about it: It could’ve been Kamloops, it could’ve been any other community. Regardless of where it happens, it is our world… We have but one.