7 years later, 2 engineers face discipline for actions that led to Mt. Polley mine disaster

Seven years after Canada’s largest tailings spill, the two engineers who were involved have been found in breach of their professional codes of conduct.

On Aug. 4, 2014, a four-square-kilometre tailings pond breached at Mount Polley mine in central British Columbia, leaking vast amounts of water and effluent into Polley and Quesnel lakes and Hazeltine Creek.

More than 17 million cubic metres of water and eight million cubic metres of tailings effluent — containing toxic copper and gold mining waste — flowed into lakes and streams that served as a drinking water source and sockeye salmon spawning ground in the province’s Cariboo region.

The 40-metre-high tailings dam was built on a sloped glacial lake. That weakened its foundation. 

Mount Polley mine records filed with Environment Canada reported that hundreds of tonnes of arsenic and lead, as well as other heavy metals including copper and nickel, flowed out in the sludge. Images of the sickly green effluent polluting the waterways showed the devastating impact of the spill into lakes that are also famed for large rainbow trout.

On Aug. 4, 2014, a four-square-kilometre tailings pond breached, leaking millions of cubic metres of water and effluent into Polley and Quesnel lakes and Hazeltine Creek. 

On Tuesday, the results of disciplinary hearings for former engineer Stephen Rice and engineer Laura Fidel were released by the Engineers and Geoscientists B.C. (EGBC), which is responsible for establishing and upholding standards of professional practice and ethical conduct.

The panel found that both Rice and Fidel demonstrated unprofessional conduct in the course of their work at the mine. Rice was censured for not properly overseeing Fidel, the more junior, inexperienced engineer — and allowing Fidel to act as engineer of record for the dam’s tailing storage facility.

In a release, the EGBC association reported that a discipline hearing panel had imposed a maximum fine of $25,000 against Rice, who resigned in 2018.

Rice also agreed to pay $107,500 dollars in legal costs to the association and is no longer permitted to practice as a professional engineer in the province.

Save-On-Foods and the Canadian Red Cross distributed water bottles after the Mount Polley mine tailings spill disaster put water quality in jeopardy in 2014. (Kirk Williams/CBC)

A separate discipline hearing panel found that Fidel also committed several acts of unprofessional conduct.

She failed to ensure sufficient observation and monitoring of the tailings dam. The lack of site visits and monitoring of seepage flows allowed unsafe conditions — the instability of the embankment — to go undetected, according to the release.

Fidel also failed to ensure that an excavation left unfilled in the embankment was assessed to ensure stability — and failed to properly review the design drawings.

Other allegations were dismissed.

A penalty hearing has yet to be scheduled in the Fidel case.

Montreal-based Mining industry watchdog Ugo Lapointe says news of sanctions against the engineers involved in Mt. Polley is a stark reminder of the weakness of environmental controls in the Canadian industry.

“They are walking away scot-free,” he said.

Lapointe, Canadian program co-ordinator for MiningWatch Canada, says the company that owns the Mount Polley site has faced no discipline from any Canadian governments, and two lawsuits launched to hold the company to account were both quashed.

“Justice has not been served in this case,” he said.

“This was the largest mine waste disaster in Canada and to this date — seven years later — there has been no fine. No sanctions whatsoever, by any government level — to the company that owns and is responsible for this site.”

He said Imperial Metals also received $100-million from an engineering firm that hired the engineers involved as compensation and $40-million tax credit for cleaning up the spill site.

After the Mount Polley disaster, EGBC says it took steps to improve dam safety in B.C., including producing professional practice guidelines for overseeing dam foundations.

A disciplinary hearing is scheduled to proceed later this year for a third individual. The allegations in that case remain unproven.

Mount Polley mine is owned and operated by Mount Polley Mining Corporation, a subsidiary of Imperial Metals. It has faced no penalties for the spill.

In 2019, a five-year deadline for federal Fisheries Act charges related to the disaster expired. British Columbia also missed the three-year deadline to proceed with charges under both the province’s Environmental Management Act and Mines Act.

Andrew Gage of Westcoast Environmental Law applauded the EGBC for holding somebody accountable. 

“The B.C. and Canadian governments’ failure to hold Imperial Metals legally responsible for the Mount Polley mine disaster, one of the biggest environmental catastrophes in Canadian history, is unfortunately part of a pattern of weak environmental enforcement in this province. Until governments make it clear that there will be consequences for environmental harm, large companies are going to feel that they can cut corners.”

CBC News has reached out to the federal Ministry of Natural Resources, the provincial minister for energy, mines and low carbon innovation and Imperial Metals for comment.

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