Mine operators confident local tailings ponds safe

Questions are being asked after the recent environmental catastrophe at the Mount Polley mine

Local mine operators are confident there won’t be a Mount Polley incident in our midst.

Questions are being asked after the recent environmental catastrophe near Likely, B.C. on Aug. 4 saw 10 million cubic metres of water and 4.5 million cubic metres of mine slurry pass through a breach in the wall of the Mount Polley mine’s tailings pond. The slurry spilled into Hazeltine Creek and then on into Quesnel Lake.

Gary Gould, vice president of Hillsborough Resources, which owns and operates the Quinsam Coal mine located 31 km southwest of Campbell River, is confident that their tailings pond is not at risk of such a breach.

Because much of Quinsam’s current production of tailings are pumped back underground into old shafts and tunnels – the first coal mine in Canada to be permitted to do so – the pond holds about one-third of the amount of liquid it used to, according to Gould. The decreased volume being held, combined with the fact that the pond itself is only approximately 200 metres by 400 metres in area, is visually inspected daily, formally inspected weekly, and annually inspected by the engineers who designed and built it. That means the operators, “certainly feel it’s been built and is operating according to design,” Gould said.

The tailings structure also recently went through its mandatory “every five years” third-party assessment, where it is inspected by engineers who had nothing to do with its construction or design.

According to Gould, Quinsam’s eventual goal is to have 100 per cent of their tailings disposed of within the underground tunnels themselves, ultimately removing the need for a tailings pond and alleviating any fears of a breach.

Robert Behrendt, general manager of the Myra Falls mine located approximately 80 km southeast of Campbell River, said that because their operations also involve the pumping of approximately 50 per cent of their tailings back underground after being mixed with cement to form a paste which is used as backfill to fill old mine workings, their tailings pond is well below capacity.

Myra Falls also went through their third-party assessment just this past February, after also completing a $27-million, 10-year project for seismic upgrading. The mine operates within a Class B park, and as such is monitored exhaustively by various agencies to ensure the integrity and ecology of the area is protected.

“We’re very aware that we’re in a protected park and at the headwaters of the Campbell River,” Behrendt said. “I tell everyone, ‘we have to have a gold-medal performance 24/7, every day of the year.’”

“Every mine is sitting back after [Mount Polley] and examining if they need to be doing things differently,” he said, “but we’re very confident in what we’ve done [in regards to tailings management], and we watch it very, very closely.”