One of the largest breaches of contaminated mining tailings in recent history took place on August 4, 2014. It happened near Vancouver, British Columbia, and you probably haven’t heard about it. Here’s the aerial view of the scene at the Imperial Metals Mount Polley gold and copper mine:
Ten million cubic meters of water and 4.5 million cubic meters of slurry contaminated with arsenic, mercury, lead, copper, and cadmium breached its undersized pond when a dam collapsed. The toxic sludge spilled into a small creek, expanding the waterway from 1.5 meters to 100 meters, in a pristine environment populated by First Nations peoples. Like in Toledo a couple weeks ago, residents suffered through a water ban advisory that instructed them not to drink, bathe, or feed livestock from the polluted water. Apparently, the mine operators had been warned repeatedly and issued violations for holding vastly more tailings in the pond than it was designed for.
Furthermore, it’s almost salmon spawning time in nearby Quesnel Lake, with one of the biggest salmon populations in the world, which the contaminated creek feeds into, and the extra juicy heavy metals should make for some fine tasting fillets for all of us piscivores. Experts say the returning adult sockeye salmon should be fine, but the juvenile salmon may be affected by the contaminants. Mmm. . . . Okay, I guess.
Who knows what the long-term environmental ramifications are—experts sure don’t. As Peter Moskowitz reported in the Guardian:
“Water will continue to run through literally tons of this sediment and grass will grow through the sediment,” said Brian Olding, an environmental consultant who authored a report on the Mount Polley Mine in 2011. “Imagine if a moose eats that grass, and then an aboriginal person comes and shoots that moose. Then we have a food contamination issue on our hands.”
Oh, Canada, we love you, but even you have your environmental demons. And just as in the United States and elsewhere, the situation is usually wrapped up in politics and money. (“Canucks—they’re just like us!”) So let’s not point fingers here.
It’s worth noting that the story barely made a ripple in the news cycle. Outside of Canada, few media outlets covered it. Not a word in the New York Times or USA Today. The Guardian took note (if you’re not reading the Guardian, you should be), as did Al-Jazeera (ditto).
This media silence begs the question, how often do these mine spills happen while we’re engrossed in news stories about climate change and methane-spewing permafrost holes in Siberia?
The answer: A whole heck of a lot.
There are something like 3,500 tailings ponds in the world. None of them are failsafe. If you’ve got some time on your hands, here’s the smoking gun report on the state of tailings ponds in the United States. If you’re busy going about your day with the weight of the world pressing down on your shoulders, here’s a handy chart. If you’re supposed to be preparing your TPS report, here are a few highlights:
- February, 2014: (perhaps you didn’t hear about this either), a million gallons of coal ash sludge from a decommissioned power plant owned by Duke Energy spilled into the Dan River in Eden, North Carolina, contaminating the drinking water of several communities. Took a week to plug the leak with concrete. Sure, the river now has high levels of arsenic, but it’s still safe to drink!
- October, 2010: 700,000 cubic meters of caustic red mud from a aluminum mine in Kolontar, Hungary, flood towns, injure 120, and kill 10. The mud’s color came from iron oxide. Also present: arsenic, mercury, chromium, etc.
- December, 2008: The dike at the TVA Kingston Fossil Plant in Harriman, Tennessee, failed, and 5.4 million cubic yards of coal ash (containing lead, thallium, mercury, arsenic, et al.) covered 400 acres and 42 houses were damaged. (This one you probably remember.) It was the largest fly ash release in U.S. history, with a total volume more than 100 times larger than the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill.
- April, 2005: A Mississippi Phosphates Corp. tailings pond fails in Bangs Lake, releasing 17 million gallons of acidic liquid into delicate marshlands. This caused algal blooms (the problem in the Toledo incident) that killed lots o’ marine life.
And the granddaddy of them all:
- February, 1972: At the Pittston Coal Mine in Buffalo Creek, West Virginia, a heavy rain led to the collapse of a tailings dam, releasing 500,000 cubic meters of black coal slurry that destroyed 500 homes, left 4,000 homeless, and killed 125 people. This one even has its own book (more than one, it turns out).
The takeaway from all this is that mining is an industry that is here to stay, and the longer it stays, the fuller the tailings ponds get. Many already hold much, much more than they were designed for, and many others aren’t far behind. Disasters are certain to happen with epic storms contributing to landslides and overflowing dams in addition to under-engineered dams and general laziness prompted by a carefree attitude toward government regulations. We’re very good at getting stuff out of the ground, not so good about what happens to the ground after that.
Kathy Wilson Peacock is a writer, editor, nature lover, and flaneur of the zeitgeist. She favors science over superstition and believes that knowledge is the best super power. Favorite secret weapon: A library card.