There are a few unarguable truths about mine tailings, the pulverized rock, water and sludge left over from mineral extraction — mining is a messy business, the leftovers have to be dealt with forever and it’s impossible to guarantee against another tailings dam failure such as the Mount Polley catastrophe.
In B.C., there are 98 tailings storage facilities at 60 metal and coal mines, of which 31 are operating or under construction and the remaining 67 are at mines that are either permanently or temporarily closed
That means communities throughout B.C. and Alaska are looking nervously at nearby tailings ponds, which sometimes more closely resemble lakes, stretching over several square kilometres, with the toxic waste held back by earth and rock-filled dams. The water is usually recycled through the plant when the mine is operating, but, after the mine closes, water, toxins and finely ground rock must continue to be contained or treated.
It’s the realization that tailings have to be treated in perpetuity that worries many of those living downstream, especially as the Mount Polley breach happened only 17 years after the dam was constructed.
“The concept of forever boggles people minds. In one thousand years is the bank account still going to be there? These people are going to be dead,” said Chris Zimmer of Rivers Without Borders.