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Mount Polley Breach Report Faults Tailings Pond Design Flaws; First Nations Respond

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First Nations reacted with firm resolve to a report that found design flaws had led to a tailings pond breach at Mount Polley mine last August that sent four billion gallons of mining waste gushing into British Columbia salmon habitat.

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A three-person panel convened by the B.C. government two weeks after the disaster “concluded that evidence indicates the dominant contribution to the failure resides in the design,” the experts said in a statement on January 30.

The experts said the design did not take into account the instability of sediment layers underneath the retaining wall, a failure likened to a “loaded gun,” according to CBC News. The breach occurred when the embankment foundation failed in a layer of glacial sediment, the panel said in its statement. Making the slope of the embankment too steep was like “pulling the trigger” in causing the August 4 breach, CBC News reported. Moreover, the volume of water was not an issue when it came to the dam break, though it did influence the amount that flowed into the waterways, the report said.

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The report was delivered to the Ministry of Energy and Mines, the T’exelc First Nation (Williams Lake Indian Band) and the Xat’sull First Nation (Soda Creek Indian Band). After taking the weekend to study the 150-page document, the indigenous leaders issued a measured but firm response.

“Safety has a price, and these companies have to quit taking shortcuts that prove disastrous,” said Williams Lake Indian Band Chief Ann Louie in a statement from the First Nations.

“While mining is an important industry and provides jobs for many it cannot be at the expense of the environment or public safety,” said Grand Chief Edward John from the First Nations Summit. “The best available technology (not the best practices standard) is required for existing and future mines instead of water/tailings storage and the use of lakes.”

The First Nations officials backed the panel’s recommendations for better mine safety and the provincial government’s vow to implement them, as well.

“The Government of B.C. has stated that they will take a leadership role to ensure an environmental crisis like Mt. Polley never happens again,” said Northern Shuswap Tribal Council Chief Maureen Chapman, a board member for the B.C. Assembly of First Nations, in the statement. “Not only will this mean implementing all of the Investigative Panel’s recommendations, but also committing to bold policy reforms which would see First Nations communities as partners in environmental regulation. The mining policy is one of many examples where First Nations are taking the lead by developing Nation-based regulations to govern resource activities on their traditional territories.”

The conclusions also reverberated in neighboring Alaska, where tribal and government leaders are advocating for more regulation in what they see as a lax environment in B.C.

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