Part Three: Mount Polley Disaster Can Repeat Itself If We Don’t Learn Its Lessons

Written by: Chris Hunt

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[Editor’s note: This is the third and final post in a three-part series running on the Trout Unlimited blog about how the Mount Polley Mine dam disaster could have devastating impacts on salmon in Alaska if proposed mines are allowed to be constructed in important salmon watersheds. You can read the first installment here and the second here.

Mining can be a dirty business, as we saw earlier this month when the dam holding back toxic tailings from the Mount Polley Mine in British Columbia broke, sending 1.3 billion gallons of contaminated water into Hazeltine Creek and the headwaters of the fabled Fraser River drainage.

Home to B.C.’s most robust sockeye salmon run—this year’s return was forecast to be among the best ever—the Fraser is sacred to anglers who chase salmon and steelhead, and it’s the nursery for much of Canada’s commercial salmon fishery. There’s no telling what the impact will be on the sockeye run, the bulk of which is in the Fraser River right now.

The contaminated water will surely dilute some as it passes through Quesnel Lake and then into the river, but the damage to the upper reaches of the watershed could be  devastating—and some experts believe take decades or longer to recover. That habitat for salmon, trout and char is likely lost.

It’s a tragedy, but a tragedy we can learn from. It should give us the perspective we need to finally put the ill-conceived Pebble Mine proposed for Alaska’s salmon-rich Bristol Bay drainage to rest, once and for all. Here’s why:

  • The engineering firm that designed the Mount Polley Mine tailings dam that failed last week is the same firm hired by the Pebble Limited Partnership to design the dam complex at the proposed mine in the headwaters of Bristol Bay.
  • Pebble once touted the Mount Polley Mine as the perfect example of how salmon and mining could coexist. A video promoting that example has been scrubbed from the Internet in the wake of the Mount Polley disaster.
  • The Mount Polley Mine close resembles a complex of proposed mines in western B.C. that would be situated in the headwaters of the Stikine, the Unuk and the Taku rivers—all of which drain into the Pacific Ocean through Southeast Alaska, and all of which are vital for Alaska’s commercial salmon fishery. A similar disaster in this region could be devastating to the Alaskan fishing economy and to the fishing heritage of the region.
  • Disaster aside, the partnership behind the Pebble Mine has failed to deliver on its promises. First, the promised mining plan for Pebble is still missing—the PLP website touts Pebble as “an idea,” not a plan to dig the world’s largest open pit mine and protect the 14,000 jobs the Bristol Bay salmon fishery supports. Second, Pebble’s leaders once promised that the mine would not go where it wasn’t wanted. Within the Bristol Bay watershed, 80 percent of the residents polled said they didn’t want the mine in their neighborhood.
  • The company that owns Mount Polley—Imperial Metals—also owns the the Red Chris Mine, which is to be situated in the headwaters of the Stikine River. Do we want the company responsible for the Mount Polley Disaster mining in the headwaters of one of Southeast Alaska’s great salmon rivers?
  • News continues to leak out about unsavory, backroom deals and shady politics between Imperial Metals and Canada’s controlling Liberal Party. Additionally, the B.C. and Canadian federal governments have scaled back mine inspections in recent yearsby creating new policy—they say Mount Polley was inspected on schedule, but that schedule has been altered greatly from the schedule a decade ago, when inspections were more frequent. Presumably, the mines in the transboundary region would be subjected to the same inadequate inspections.
  • And, finally, those infrequent inspections resulted in five violations at Mount Polley, the latest of which was given to the mine in May of this year. The reason? The wastewater behind the tailings dam was too high.


Mining, when done right in the right places, is a necessity and a vital part of our economy. Trout Unlimited knows what good mining practices are, and it works with valued mining partners across the country to ensure responsible recovery of important resources that help make our economy go.

The American Fork cleanup project was done with the help of funding from Tiffany and Co.
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The companies keep their promises, deliver on their responsibilities, and are not only around during the mining process, but during the cleanup and reclamation processes. They do things the right way, with the understanding that their work has the potential to greatly impact the health of our other natural resources—from fish and game to clean drinking water—that also serve important roles in our economy and our way of life.

Contact the EPA in the United States and ask the agency to severely limit the size and scale of potential mining operations in the sensitive Bristol Bay watershed. And contact the Canadian government in British Columbia, as well as the U.S. State Department, and let them know that the practices and methods used in mines like Mount Polley are not acceptable, simply because the lust for minerals and the cash that follows cannot overshadow the importance of healthy watersheds, from the tops of the mountains to their confluence with the sea.

Chris Hunt is the national communications director of Trout Unlimited, and a freelance writer and author.

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