The environmental disaster unfolding below the Mount Polley tailings pond in central British Columbia (B.C.) may provide a breath of life to opponents of the proposed KSM Mine near Stewart, B.C., by the Alaska panhandle.
The proposed mine is a $5.3-billion project that will extract some 130,000 tonnes of gold, copper, silver, and molybdenum ore per day from three open pits. The project received its provincial environmental assessment certificate on July 30, 2014, five days before the Mount Polley dam breach. Federal approval is also required. Public comment on the federal comprehensive study report is open until August 20, 2014.
The KSM project calls for a 2-billion-tonne tailings impoundment area to be constructed in a valley with a dam at each end. The project’s proponents argue that the plans for the tailings impoundment exceed all regulatory requirements, but in light of development unfolding at Mount Polley, that may no longer be good enough.
Speaking to Alaska radio station KBRD on August 5, 2014, Brent Murphy, environmental affairs vice president of Seabridge Gold, KSM’s developer, said the KSM dam and the Mount Polley dam are entirely different.
“The design of the tailings management facility is such that water will not be standing up against the crest of the dam. Any ponds will be at least kilometers away from the crest of the dams,” said Murphy.
Chris Zimmer, Alaska campaign director of the organization Rivers Without Borders, doesn’t buy it.
“All these dams are basically piles of dirt and rock,” Zimmer told EcoLog News. “They are dirt and rock structures made by humans and they are going to inherently degrade over time.” Seabridge’s plan includes monitoring and maintenance for “about 250 years,” says Zimmer. “Our question is — what happens after 250 years and a day?” The dams will have to contain the tailings forever, he says, “and forever is a very long time.”
Zimmer calls the tailings dam “a long-term ecological time bomb perched up above some of the prime salmon habitat in the region.”
Prior to the Mount Polley dam breach, KSM had secured support from most of the neighbouring First Nations, but Zimmer is counting on some cross-border cooperation between Alaska tribes and Canadian First Nations to help swing opinion. There is also precedent within the Boundary Waters Treaty which, he says, prohibits the pollution of waters that cross the Canada-U.S. border.
He says the State of Alaska has so far expressed no concern about the KSM project. But with Mount Polley now leading the news, “we’ve put that in front of our regulators here in Alaska, and we’re going to be meeting with them to ask them if they’ve changed their mind or come to some new conclusions or now see that KSM is riskier than they thought.”