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Mount Polley spill could affect whole mining industry

Another view facing away from the breach and toward the waters of Lake Polley.

Jonathan Hayward/The Canadian Press

B.C.'s mining association says the Mount Polley spill could lead to changes for the industry, even as First Nations leaders predicted the disaster will affect other resource projects and vowed to push for a public inquiry if they do not get the answers they are seeking.

Millions of cubic metres of waste spewed from a tailings pond into central B.C. waterways on Monday at the Mount Polley copper and gold mine, which is owned by Imperial Metals Corp.

Angela Waterman, vice-president of environment and technical affairs for the Mining Association of B.C., said much about the spill is unknown, but it could have consequences for other mining outfits when the results of investigations come out.

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"We'll have to wait for the report to find out what the underlying cause was, and everybody's very interested in the findings. And from the findings there will always be learnings, and from that may come new recommendations for industry," she said in an interview on Thursday.

Ms. Waterman called the spill "an anomaly," and said she remains optimistic about the industry long-term. She also defended current regulations on how often mines must have inspections, which First Nations and conservation groups have decried as inadequate.

"All dams are subject to annual formal inspections, at a minimum. Generally, there's many more inspections. A mine could have an inspection by somebody from the Ministry of Mines at any time," she said.

Bill Bennett, the Minister of Mines, has rejected claims that government cuts to staff and inspections played a role in the disaster. Critics have said the province needs stricter regulations and a willingness to levy large fines for non-compliance.

Preliminary tests showed on Thursday that water quality near the breach meets drinking-water standards, although a ban on using the water remains in place until more tests are completed.

Grand Chief Stewart Phillip, president of the Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs, said the spill will have an enormous impact on the relationship between First Nations and the mining industry.

What is more, he said, there will be consequences for other types of resource development.

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"A spill is a spill is a spill," he said in an interview, adding that it makes no difference if it comes from a mine or a pipeline such as Enbridge's proposed Northern Gateway pipeline, Kinder Morgan's Trans Mountain expansion project, or another source.

"It's an issue of toxic chemicals – oil, mining sludge – versus water, the environment," he said.

Mr. Phillip called on the province to order an emergency assessment of all tailings ponds. Andrew Weaver, a Green Party MLA, made the same request in a statement on Thursday.

Mr. Phillip said he believes there has been a concerted effort to play down the effects of the spill and that too many questions are unanswered, particularly on any earlier problems the Mount Polley facility may have had.

If the province does not provide adequate answers, he said, his organization will call for a public inquiry.

Mount Polley is not the only project in B.C. in which Imperial Metals is involved. Its Red Chris mine, in northwest B.C., is nearing the end of construction. The Ruddock Creek project, in southeastern B.C., is in the preapplication phase of the environmental assessment process.

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It is unclear when the Mount Polley mine could reopen. Imperial Metals shares fell sharply the day after the spill, plunging more than 40 per cent.

The spill has caused consternation among First Nations near other Imperial Metals mining sites.

Chad Day, president of the Tahltan Central Council, wrote in a statement that the spill raises questions about the Red Chris mine, which is near the band's territory.

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