The village of Bento Rodrigues after the Fundao dam burst at the Samarco Mine. By Senado Federal (Bento Rodrigues, Mariana, Minas Gerais) [CC BY 2.0 ], via Wikimedia Commons
In August 2014 it was a 24,400,000 cubic meter spill from the Mt. Polley gold mine in British Columbia, Canada into the headwaters of the Fraser River (below) only a few weeks before a run of salmon would make their way upstream. However, on Dec.17, 2015, the provincial government announced there would be no criminal charges or fines assessed against Imperial Metals for the disaster. Al Hoffman, British Columbia’s chief inspector of mines stated, “Although there were poor practices, there were no non-compliances we could find.”
If a mine can discharge 10 million cubic meters of polluted water and toxic mine waste into the environment, turning a quiet stream into a moonscape, and yet not have broken any rules, one must wonder if the rules and/or regulators are up to the task.
Unfortunately, this list only recounts some of the more notorious disasters that reached the international press. For a more complete record of significant mine tailings dam failures, the World Information Service on Energy has complied a list of over 80 major non-coal spills since the 1960’s.
Yet every time a new mine is proposed, even when the dam would be taller than the Washington Monument, we are reassured that this time we have the technology right, this time the dam won’t fail, and this time the environment will be left just as it was before we mined it. There are techniques, such “dry-stacking“, which are safer than conventional wet-tailings impoundments, but they are also more expensive.
So unless the public and regulators demand that mines employ better practices, it seems we will have to keep reliving this story, year after year.
Stay tuned for the next part of this series, impoundment failures from coal mines in Appalachia.