The Fraser River that pours into the sea near Vancouver is the most productive salmon river in the world.
Just now as the salmon have this week begun their upstream migration to spawn, one of the largest spills of toxic mine waste in history, 25 million of cubic meters of waste, has occurred in a major branch of the Fraser River. Will it be Fishpocalypse Now.
Two days ago the commercial and sport fishing harvest of sockeye salmon began on what authorities have been saying could be the largest return of salmon in all history. 72 million fish have been forecast in a miraculous return to a river system that last year saw just 2 million sockeye.
Historically 25% of those bright red sockeye salmon are headed to Quesnel lake, the site of the massive spill, or were headed. The lake and it’s tributaries are host to the largest run of sockeye salmon on earth!
UPDATE 30 January 2015… read the update at the end of this post, government panel BS says ‘no one could have seen this coming.’
But now a massive breach of the toxic waste containment lake dam at a gold mine has sent more than 25 million cubic meters, 6.6 billion gallons, of toxic mine waste into Quesnel lake and regional waterways. This massive spill is just a few km from where the largest run of sockeye salmon in the world along would normally be swimming into the lake alongside the town of Likely, BC. The fish are arriving right now.
Update 4 Sept 2014: The amount of mine waste in the spill has now been reported by the company to be far larger than the original report. Now 25 million cubic meters of waste are reported to have spilled through the breached waste containment dam, 78% more than the original report!
At 6.6 billion gallons he spill contains more than 1000 times the waste contained in the infamous Love Canal which held a mere 1 million gallons of waste! The Exxon Valdez spilled 11 million gallons of oil into Alaska’s coastal waters in 1989. This weeks Canadian spill is many times larger than the similar and deadly spill of 1 million cubic meters of toxic waste from a mine in Hungary in 2010 into a tributary to the Danube River. This sort of feared cataclysmic spill is why so many are alarmed at the proposed Pebble Mine in Alaska that if built threatens salmon runs there.
Preliminary reports cite a toxic stew of heavy metals and arsenic are in the spill. As those heavy metals mix into the more acidic waters of Quesnel lake and river, and the Fraser river further downstream, those dangerous metals will be mobilized and become even more dangerous. Spills of this magnitude often take decades to stop the toxic effects and mitigate the damage to the environment. It’s likely this is the most pristine, valuable, and sensitive environment ever subjected to such a disaster.
It simply couldn’t be a worse case scenario for salmon just now.
Update 6 August: “There is alot of anxiety up and down the entire length of the Fraser River because all of the tribal nations are fishing sockeye right now. Right now we are seeing a record return of sockeye salmon to the Fraser River.” Earnie Crey fisheries advisor for the Sto:lo Tribal Council also says First Nations are already reporting dead fish along the affected water ways.
Health Advisories On Monday Prohibit Even Touching Of Water In Largest and Deepest Fjord Lake In the World
Provincial health authorities are advising people in the area to not even touch the now toxic water in Quesnel Lake. This is especially directed to the residents of Likely BC where the lake empties into the Quesnel River just a few kilometers from the spill. No words have been spoken with regard to the impact of the salmon now swimming up that river into the lake but surely if the waters are dangerous to the touch for humans the fish are going to be in a very bad way. Locals are posting pictures of dead fish floating in the lake on social media.
It could be Fishpocalypse Now.
Fully a quarter of the salmon that migrate into the Fraser River watershed, which normally produces the most salmon of any river on earth, are headed up the Quesnel River and into tributaries to Quesnel lake. The lake is big, more than 100 km long and over 500 meters deep. Salmon are highly sensitive to the chemistry of their rivers and streams and use their finely tuned chemical senses to find their spawning grounds. The danger to those fish simply could not be worse. Destruction of this years Fraser sockeye alone could result in a direct loss of at least $1.5 billion not including economic multiplier effects. Scores of native villages may face winter food shortages as vital salmon may be too toxic to eat.
Aileen Peterson, owner of Valley General Store in Likely for eight years, said the water level on Quesnel Lake behaved strangely. “It went up and then down a few feet. We got a call at 6 a.m. that everybody had to take their boats out of the water.”
Local Rick Matthews boated down Quesnel Lake to view the muddy debris on Monday afternoon that blankets the lake and is worried that unless something is done, the mass of logs will get swept down the Quesnel River with devastating results.
“The floating island of muddy logs is creeping towards Likely,” he says. “There needs to be damage control or it will pile up against the bridge and could take it out.”
Robin Wood, president of the Likely Chamber of Commerce, is grim as he and his wife, Darlene, hand out water advisory notices to people on the shore of the river. “A toxic plume continues to build in the lake and move down the outflow into the Quesnel River at Likely. Before nightfall on Monday the water advisory for Likely had been expanded for the whole Quesnel River system 150 km downriver to the City of Quesnel on the Fraser River.”
We’ll be following this story closely and sending our own biologists and chemists to check on the health of the Fraser River and it’s suitability for sustaining this years historic salmon return. We are certain most of those fish have returned in such abundance due to our work to restore their vital ocean pasture. So we have a vested interest in the health and well-being of those fish.
Here’s a link just how historic this years return of salmon is in our post, Salmon counts break records from Alaska to the Columbia river.
Dang it, just when we thought salmon were going to get their big break!
Here’s a few reference links.
Quesnel Lake Tourism Page … oops never mind.
Mike Romain, chief of Department of Fisheries and Ocean’s Fraser River Action Plan stated in BC’s Coast & Kayak Magazine, that: “The Quesnel River System is the Crown Jewel of the Fraser Fishery and is the number one producer of sockeye salmon in the Fraser Basin, providing one-third of the Fraser River’s total sockeye catch.” Read more here…
UPDATE 30 January 2015 Government Investigation Report Released
The government panel investigating this largest mine waste spill on earth has issued it’s apologists report. It states the obvious, the damn suffered a catastrophic foundation failure due to now proven terrible engineering. But it goes on to blame the failed engineering design on Mother Nature saying that in this location, where any first year geology student just glancing once at aerial photos of the location would describe the land upon which the dam was built as being a glacial lacustrine geology, dam failure was due to that lacustrine geology not being known to the dam engineers and builder.
Glacial lucustrine deposits are ‘lake bed deposits made up of fine materials’ well known for their instability. Quicksand comes to mind as a description of these sorts of materials. A 20 second effort to search using Google and the search terms “build tailings dams on lacustrine deposits” yields scores of scientific and engineering papers on how common the practice of building on lucustrine deposits is and how such dams must be properly engineering and managed. That this government panel shifts the blame onto the “unknown unstable ground” is simply preposterous.
Norbert Morgenstern, chairman of the panel that investigated the spill, said evidence indicates there was a glacial lake deposit under the foundation of the dam.
The design did not take into account the complexity of the sub-glacial and pre-glacial geological environment associated with the perimeter embankment foundation and not taking that glacial lake into account and building on a weak layer was like loading a gun, said Morgenstern
Quesnel lake into which the 24 million cubic meters of mine waste poured remains clouded with the waste material and people who formerly depended on lake water for domestic and livestock are still unable to drink the lake water and must rely on bottled water. The report notes that clean up and environmental protection resulting from this largest mine waste spill in global history will take many years.
The Minister of Mines notes that scores of other mine tailings lakes in the province will be examines to see if any of those were built on “glacial lucustrine deposits” which might make them vulnerable to similar catastrophic failures. Anyone in the mining industry will be amused at this comment by the minister as certainly the majority of all tailings dams and lakes in BC’s heavily glaciated environment are most likely built on such ground.
As for why tens of millions of sockeye salmon due to spawn in the Fraser River that were expected to follow the smell of the Fraser River in through the Strait of Juan de Fuca in the weeks immediately following the massive spill failed to show up was not touched on by the report.
Note: Author Russ George has a special knowledge of this mine waste disaster as he once worked for the British Columbia Ministry of Energy, Mines, and Petroleum Resources as an environmental professional and mines inspector. He’s inspected and worked on more tailings impoundments in BC than he can remember. He was born into a mining family as well, so mining is in his blood.