No charges filed in Mount Polley mine disaster

Muddy water from the breached Mount Polley Mine tailings pond dam floods a downstream creek and road Aug. 4, 2014. Fishing and environmental groups say the same could happen at new B.C. mines near the Southeast border. (Photo by Cariboo Regional District Emergency Operations Centre)

The British Columbia government has decided to not file charges in the Mount Polley Mine disaster.

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Critics in Southeast Alaska say the lack of enforcement action increases their concerns about similar mines near salmon-rich transboundary rivers, which begin in British Columbia and flow through Southeast.

Mount Polley’s tailings dam broke Aug. 4, 2014, sending millions of gallons of silt and water into nearby creeks and rivers.

The three-year statute of limitations for filing charges is over and the province said it is taking no legal action.

The central B.C. mine is owned by Imperial Metals, which also owns the Red Chris Mine in the Stikine River watershed.

Southeast Alaska Conservation Council Mining Coordinator Guy Archibald said he’s very disappointed.

“The Mount Polley investigation found that the contractors were not following the plan of operation for maintaining the tailings dam and that contributed to its failure,” Archibald said. “Why nobody’s being held responsible for this is very surprising.”

B.C. environmental officials issued a statement Aug. 1 calling the dam collapse, “one of the worst environmental disasters in our province’s history.”

Environment Minister George Heyman said the investigation is not over.

Heyman promised provincial officials would work with Canada’s federal government to complete their inquiry.

Archibald said he doesn’t expect federal charges to be filed, either.

“Since the Mount Polley investigation, we’ve seen mines moving forward with the same failed technology as in the case of Mount Polley,” Archibald said. “Mines continue to be permitted and existing water-tailings structures are still on the books. Nothing has really changed on the ground from business as usual in the last three years.”

Industry and prior British Columbia representatives have pointed to improvements in tailings-dam design and construction, saying they’re safe.

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Ed Schoenfeld is Regional News Director for CoastAlaska, a consortium of public radio stations in Ketchikan, Juneau, Sitka, Petersburg and Wrangell. He primarily covers Southeast Alaska regional topics, including the state ferry system, transboundary mining, the Tongass National Forest and Native corporations and issues. He has also worked as a manager, editor and reporter for the Juneau Empire newspaper and Juneau public radio station KTOO. He’s also reported for commercial station KINY in Juneau and public stations KPFA in Berkley, WYSO in Yellow Springs, Ohio, and WUHY in Philadelphia. He’s lived in Alaska since 1979 and is a contributor to Alaska Public Radio Network newscasts, the Northwest (Public Radio) News Network and National Native News. He is a board member of the Alaska Press Club. Originally from Cleveland, Ohio, he lives in Douglas.