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Imperial Metals Faces Scrutiny over Other Mines' Safety

Corner-cutting, cost savings a 'pattern of behaviour,' mining consultant alleges.

David P Ball 15 Aug

David P. Ball is staff reporter with The Tyee. Send him tips or comments by email, find him on Twitter @davidpball, or read his previous Tyee reporting here.

Imperial Metals Corporation is facing fresh scrutiny of its other major mines across British Columbia in the wake of the Mount Polley dam breach.

Last Monday, the impoundment dam near Likely, B.C. collapsed, dumping 14.5 million cubic metres of tailings into the watershed. Reports have since revealed the firm was warned about dam safety and dangerous tailings levels by employees, their union, government inspectors and consultants.

Now, sources allege that at two other Imperial projects -- Red Chris and Huckleberry mines -- the company cut corners on safety to save money.

And Wednesday the B.C. government announced the opening of Red Chris would be delayed until an investigation of its safety is completed by First Nations who live in the area.

Last year, The Tyee reported on concerns over the Red Chris mine's tailings storage facility. A blockade near the Red Chris site near Iskut, B.C. (roughly 500 kilometres northwest of Smithers) by members of Tahltan nation launched on Aug. 8.

The Red Chris impoundment is contained by an earthen dam reportedly similar to the one at Mount Polley, and is designed by the same United Kingdom-based company, AMEC, which took over engineering at the Mount Polley site in 2011 before the tailings dam was raised in height to accommodate rising levels of waste.

One mining consultant familiar with the design and plans for the company's Red Chris project said that the problems weren't just at the Mount Polley site, but asked that his identity not be published due to fears it could hurt his chances of being employed in the industry.

At Red Chris mine, he alleged, the company resisted calls to install a protective lining material across the bottom of the tailings pond or some other measure to reduce tailings leaching from the pond, as recommended by local First Nations, and said the company has not done many of the tests recommended in a 2013 report on the risk of leaks. In addition, he alleged the company has tried to cut costs when it comes to modeling software around impoundment leaks, leading to inadequate data.

He alleged there is pattern that boils down to a lack of "proven contingencies" at Red Chris, a term denoting the actions taken triggered by "undesirable outcomes at the mine site."

"These are what would appear were missing at Mount Polley too," he said. "They don't want them because once you have a proven contingency, then you have a trigger, once you have a trigger then you need monitoring. It all costs them a lot of money."

In addition, the consultant argued, "There's a pattern of behaviour around trying to achieve the least-cost monitoring... They want to get the least onerous monitoring conditions in their permit as possible."

Combined, he argued, those factors raise questions about how safe the Red Chris mine's earthen tailings impoundment will be.

Repeated requests for an interview with Imperial Metals Corp. or for comment on the consultant's allegations were not granted by press time.

'It was so mismanaged that it makes me sick': tailings dam foreman

Retired Mount Polley tailings dam foreman Gerald MacBurney has spent much of the past week in interviews with media outlets and provincial investigators about why he resigned after seven years, saying he repeatedly and unsuccessfully "fought" to get the large trucks he needed to add more rock to the impoundment as the tailings waters rose, and mine engineers raised flags.

"I've been repeating my story here every day; I don't want to have to repeat it no more," he told The Tyee. "Everyone's very intelligent, they should be able to see through this whole thing and see who's lying."

MacBurney has repeatedly claimed that he and engineers warned the company that water was getting too high, and even poured over the dam top once in May. But he alleged that dam safety seemed to have taken a backseat to extracting ore from the mine pit, and ore began to pile up needlessly around the site.

"Everyone was more concerned with the pit," he recalled. "I understand we need ore to run the whole mine, but when you start to see it stockpiled down in pit, you go, 'What the hell are we doing here?'

"I was just following my directive from my engineers. If they can't make the pit do it, I sure as shit can't. It was so mismanaged that it makes me sick."

Imperial Metals ramped up Mount Polley's ore production levels by 23 per cent in the previous three months ending on June 30, according to a company release, compared to the previous quarter.

While the government said it will ensure mines across the province operate safely and future accidents are averted, Imperial Metals said that its Red Chris gold and copper mine is still scheduled to launch full operations. The firm's vice-president of corporate affairs said the Mount Polley failure would not delay that opening.

"It's going to be human nature for people to think like that," Steve Robertson told Bloomberg News on Aug. 9. "We haven't received any indication from the government that there will be any change to our ability to go ahead and commission Red Chris."

Despite the company's initial insistence Red Chris mine would proceed unhindered, on Wednesday the B.C. government announced that now the project would not launch until Tahltan nation could conduct an Imperial Metals-funded "independent engineering review" of the facility, according to an Aug. 13 email from a Ministry of Energy and Mines spokeswoman.

"Government is committed to an independent review of all tailings ponds and an independent investigation into the breach at Mt Polley," she wrote. "Lessons learned from the investigation into the Mount Polley incident will be applied province-wide as appropriate."

Imperial Metals Corp. has not responded to repeated Tyee interview requests since the dam broke.

'They hurry everything': consultant

The mining consultant for Red Chris mine who spoke anonymously said he believes Imperial Metals' fights over leaching prevention at that mine, and reports of ignored warnings at Mount Polley, suggest a "pattern of behaviour" in the company of hurrying and overly aggressive cost-cutting on projects.

The local consultant believed that Mount Polley's repeated tailings dam warnings around rising water levels could have been addressed for as little as $3 million.

The consultant also pointed to a 2007 pit wall collapse at the Huckleberry mine, an open-pit copper and molybdenum mine near Houston, B.C. that is 50 per cent-owned by Imperial Metals. First Nations in the area had previously expressed worries about the mine's authorized releases into the watershed.

The firm listed as conducting "geotechnical investigation and tailings management facility design" for Huckleberry mine was AMEC, the same one that built up the existing Mount Polley dam.

Be careful drawing conclusions: consultant

A different consultant with experience in tailings impoundment impacts warned The Tyee not to leap to judgment based on the apparent similarity of earthen dams designed by the same firm.

"Just because it was done by the same designers or built by same mine, you cannot draw conclusions there," said the expert, who asked not to be identified. "Just because one dam failed, it doesn't mean it will fail as well.

"Having been around the subject for some years, you have to be careful not to jump to conclusions about the safety of dams because of one failure unless they were the exact same design... The only way you can get solid information is to talk to people familiar with its design."

Knight Piésold issued a statement following the Mount Polley incident distancing itself from that mine's tailings dam design at the time it collapsed, insisting that since it ceased being engineer of record for the tailings storage facility on Feb. 10, 2011, after which time the dam was significantly heightened.

"The original engineering done by Knight Piésold Ltd. accommodated a significantly lower water volume than the tailings storage facility reportedly held at the time of the breach," the company's statement read. "Significant engineering and design changes were made subsequent to our involvement, such that the tailings storage facility can no longer be considered a Knight Piésold Ltd. design."

By March 8, 2011, the new Engineer of Record for the tailings impoundment was British firm AMEC Earth and Environment, a company that had previously examined the earthen dam and given it passing grades.

AMEC is also the company that designed the earthen dam for Imperial Metals' Red Chris mine. Company spokeswoman Lauren Gallagher would not comment on similarities between the design of Red Chris and Mount Polley dams, but told The Tyee by email that a dam's safety is dependent on many factors, including how it was maintained, operated, constructed and designed. On top of those, "unforeseen conditions" are also a factor in performance, she said.

"Determining which of these factors contributed to the Mount Polley Dam breach requires a thorough investigation," Gallagher said in an email. "While AMEC serves as the Engineer of Record on the most recent raising of the dam, implementation of the AMEC design has not been completed and some construction activity was still taking place to complete our design.

"AMEC is deeply saddened and concerned about the damage caused by the Mount Polley Dam breach. We are committed to working with Imperial Metals and the local authorities to assist in determining the cause of the breach and to offer guidance on how best to mitigate impacts to the surrounding communities and environment."

'Clearly somebody had concerns' at Mount Polley: engineer

The energy and mines spokeswoman told The Tyee that its "comprehensive investigation" into the Likely, B.C. incident would examine "the failure to determine root causes around the incident at Mt Polley," including scrutinizing the design and engineering of the tailings impoundment that was still in process of being heightened by AMEC.

"The Province is aware Imperial Metals has contracted the same company at Red Chris mine and Mt. Polley mine," the spokeswoman added in an email. "The cause of the failure at Mount Polley is unknown at this time and will be the subject of a thorough investigation with independent oversight."

Vancouver-based geotechnical engineer Jack Caldwell wrote on his website that examining videos and reports of the tailings spill at Mount Polley strongly suggest high water levels and engineering problems are to blame.

He wrote on Aug. 9 that MacBurney's claims engineers advised using rocks to stabilize the embankments meant that "clearly somebody had concerns about the stability of the facility."

In another post from Aug. 6, Caldwell posited that the dam failed because "there was too much water in the dam, the corner gave way, an upstream slide occurred, and the disaster ensued.

"They are saying nobody could have anticipated this," he said. "Rubbish. It was entirely predictable given the facts. It is just nobody had the courage to speak.

"The sad thing is that if indeed the dam was being operated in accordance with plans and permits, the consultants are to blame."

Meanwhile, the local consultant familiar with Red Chris mines' plans who spoke anonymously to The Tyee insisted he does, in fact, know the tailings impoundment's design quite well at that site -- and expressed worries it may be even less stable than its counterpart at Mount Polley.

"They're similar designs," he said. "There are some subtle differences, it's a different shape and it's deeper and in a valley.

"But it's in a place prone to avalanches and landslides, geohazards that actually the impoundment in [Mount Polley] didn't have. Normally, you model failures on a catastrophic event, not 3 a.m. on a morning and the thing suddenly goes -- it just came too high and fell apart. The impoundment that's planned at Red Chris has a lot more geohazards than the Mount Polley site does."

'They're rushing forward' at Red Chris: Mining Watch

Ramsey Hart, Canada program coordinator for MiningWatch Canada, said the Red Chris project has raised numerous questions not only about the safety of its tailings dam, but about Imperial Metals' practices overall.

"They're rushing forward to get it built," he said, claiming that at an impoundment consultation he attended for the mine, operators boasted they'd started impoundment construction before getting permits. "I guess they're confident in the regulatory process going their way.

"That raises some concerns that they're not following the best practices, or that they're not doing everything they could to address the issues -- about shortcuts or best practices not being met."

If the allegations he's heard of corner-cutting are true, he added, they likely stem from a "drive for the bottom line, as there is in most mining companies, that's combined with a fairly permissive regulatory regime."

According to Elections BC records, various divisions of AMEC donated $221,010 to the BC Liberals since 2000, and none to the BC New Democrats. (The Tyee previously reported that Imperial Metals and its mine subsidiaries also donated $233,710 to the Liberals and $43,410 to the NDP).  [Tyee]

Read more: BC Politics, Environment

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