Quesnel Lake Toxic Spill Science Primer

Quesnel Lake Toxic Spill Science Primer

It’s Begun, Dueling Boffin Banjos.

Global News in Canada has rounded up a university boffin to profess on whether the 19 million cubic meter, 5 billion gallon, mine waste spill near Likely, B.C. that has contaminated Quesnel lake and river is something to worry about or not. Always the first thing to do in such a case is to set up the debate story by mustering out of the dusty halls of academia appropriate experts. Make it all sound like there is surely a question as to whether, as Global puts it, “should you be worried.”

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. 25 million cubic meters of waste is now reported to have spilled through the breached waste containment dam, 78% more than the original report!


made in canada seal

— sacré bleu —

Canadian’s are clearly getting worried that they must now live with the fact that they are the Likely home to the world’s worst environmental disaster in history. One can see it as nations media fall into loyalist line to diminish the disaster.

Let’s set the stage.

This year the forecast return of sockeye salmon to the Fraser River includes the largest number ever forecast, as many as 72 million may be on the way home. I claim a role in this spectacular number as my 2012 ocean pasture restoration project was designed to BRING BACK THE FISH start with that link there is plenty to read.

“The timing of this spill couldn’t be worse in terms of the return of the sockeye,” said Craig Orr, executive director of Watershed Watch Salmon Society. “The peak migration of sockeye in the Quesnel system — which includes the Horsefly River, Quesnel River and Mitchell River, all waterways potentially affected by the Polley Lake tailings pond spill — is expected in about two weeks.”

Unbeknownst to the Sockeye and salmon friends trouble had been stewing in the wilds of British Columbia.

mount polley spill

August 2014 Mount Polley Mine Waste Spill

Early Monday August 4th, 2014 a massive mine waste spill took place at the Mount Polley mine near Quesnel lake British Columbia. The dam holding back the mine waste in a vast tailing pond burst.

In a short time not less than 19 million cubic meters, 5 billion gallons, of thick muddy mine waste burst forth in a terrible flood that poured down a tiny creek toward pristine Lake Quesnel. Within hours the meter wide creek became a swath hundreds of meters wide scoured down to bedrock for ten kilometers to where the apocalyptic flood ran into Quesnel lake.

Fishing guides on the lake like to show off to their customers just how pure the lake is by dipping their cups into the lake to offer water to drink. Been there, done that!

Quesnel lake is not just any lake, it is the most important sockeye salmon watershed in the Fraser River watershed which is in turn the richest and most important salmon river in the world. (OK Alaskan’s we can argue about this over a beer some day.) The undisputed fact is that this is a terrible environmental disaster, the scope of which we don’t know yet. It’s surely in anyone’s top ten list of global waste disasters, whether it is in the number one position or not is the question.

Boffin #1

The Global hydrology boffin posting on the Quesnel spill begins to season the broth with all manner of hypotheses and possibilities. He suggests that since the job of the mine is to extract the metals maybe they did a good job — inferring that there might not be a lot in the waste. (We pray he’s right but fear he’s wrong.) In such mining operations a really good job is extracting 2/3’s of the target metals in this case copper and gold. That leaves a lot behind in the now finely ground up tailings.

OK gold is not so dangerous and there isn’t much to begin with but copper, it’s one of the most biologically active and mobile metals and is used to kill and suppress all manner of living stuff.  You know like the “copper bottom paint” on boats that is so deadly that even in minute concentration in the paint it kills anything that touches it for years.

quesnel lake spill site

The mine waste flood swept thousands of forest trees into the lake with the spill.

The loyalist boffin does a decent job in pointing out that since the mine waste pond was kept with a high pH of 8.2 that indeed helps keep the nasty metals in the stew immobilized within the tailings solids. That fine mud, of which there is 5 million cubic meters, is just what has spilled,vastly more remains behind the breached dam. Much of these solids are now sinking to the bottom of the lake.

The boffin does justice to the science of this by saying the first deadly hit will come from what are the dissolved solids/metals in solution in the 10 million cubic meters of waste water. While dumping 40 billion gallons of toxic muck into a lake is never good at least in the case of Quesnel Lake the lake is very very large which will help dilute the stew.

Update: Adding to the dismissive tone being spun out from all quarters the BC Minister of Mines now brushes off the spill as being as inconsequential.

“Get up in a helicopter and go and look at the avalanches that happen in this province — there are probably 10,000 or 15,000 avalanches that happen every single year. Get up in a helicopter and go and look at what happened last spring with the events in the Rockies with water coming down and doing exactly what happened in Hazeltine Creek. The difference is that snow melts, (but) you are left with exactly the same (result) — it looks exactly the same as what happened in Hazeltine Creek,” said Bennett.

Time for Boffin #2

The “don’t worry be happy boffin” seems to be avoiding the elephant in the tailings spill. The ore in that mine is likely full of metallic and arseno pyrites (explaining the mention of arsenci in the news reports) and all manner of minerals common to these copper porphyry deposits. Once the alkaline material is separated from the sulfides they typically rapidly acidify in water unless it is neutralized. This mine has a good bit of alkaline rock as waste rock, which the mine operators have no doubt been using within the tailings pond to keep the pH high and the remaining metals immobilized.

But while higher pH is great at holding the mobility of some toxic metals down high pH greatly enhances the mobility of arsenic. Great idea half the time!

But BZZZT!! that pH trick only works in the confined tailings pond. Now that the tailings are on the loose they have moved away from their acid neutralizing material into the more acidic waters and environments. So we get the worst of both world’s the mobilized arsenic in the waste is set loose and the toxic metals immobilized by the high pH are now sent into a lower pH environment.

mine waste metals list

Mount Polley Mine Waste Nasties

Once in the lowered pH environment the chemistry there will immediately begin to mobilize the nasty metals and heavy metals at greatly enhanced rates due to the fine particle size of the waste ore/tailings. And don’t forget about the arsenic it’s there in abundance from the get go.

Copper is likely the worst, especially with regard to salmon.

Within the 6 million cubic meters of tailings mud, not including the 13 million cubic meters of water are dissolved solids and the hydrology expert rightly worries about those. Don’t forget the substantial additional grinding of the tailings ore as the thick mix ground and scoured its way to the lake freeing additional metal compounds.

This is an ecological disaster that is going to keep on poisoning Quesnel lake and river and more for decades to come. The size, severity, and sensitive receiving environment of this mine waste spill is perhaps unprecedented among industrial disasters on earth.

The three things that thing that makes this the candidate for the worst case scenario is location, location, location. The 5 billion gallons of metal and chemical laden muck has gone into the formerly most pristine and most productive of all Sockeye salmon nurseries in the world which now is mixing with the world’s largest ever portion of toxic mine waste stew, making a very nasty bouillabaisse.


Satellite view, before and after, of Mt. Polley Toxic Mine Waste Spill. Note the red represents changes on the day after the spill which show a big dose of mine waste moved down Quesnel lake quickly. Little of the spill headed upstream into the very large diluting volume of Quesnel lake.

If the inbound fish are lucky and dilution is on their side some of this years record number of sockeye, on the way and likely arriving now, might make it through the toxic bouillabaisse gauntlet. If they are not so poisoned by it that they can spawn perhaps there is hope — but even so it’s still not over.

sockeye fry

Baby Sockeye Fry – Hang in there babies, just maybe the miners prayer will work and the solution to pollution is dilution.

When salmon babies hatch out of the eggs and try to swim around to feed in the lake eventually drifting downstream past this toxic site there is trouble.

There are of course tens of millions of baby salmon rearing in the lake at present. What their fate is of course is unknown.

Those delicate tiny baby salmon being 1000 times more sensitive to the toxins than adult fish likely don’t have a gnats chance of survival. Worse yet their lakes danged tasty gnats may likely be toxic.

There isn’t much we can do. The nasty deed is done. The fish stew is stewing. Just how this spill ranks in the world’s top 10 environmental disasters is going to be up to the observations of the effect(s). We’ll know in a few weeks time when the millions or this year tens of millions of sockeye lovers try to run the gauntlet, whether this is an immediate Fishpocalypse Now or Later we will soon see.

The big question is whether this massive spill will carry its deadly effects immediately downstream into the Fraser and what will be the impact on this years historic salmon abundance. It’s very worrisome as government health authorities are advising people 150 km downriver where the Quesnel river enters the Fraser to neither drink nor touch the river water. Since migrating salmon are following their most delicate noses to find the precise micro-chemical signature of the streams where they were hatched a flood of non-lethal chemicals in the Fraser might easily lead them astray.

Sockeye on the spawning bed

Sockeye on the spawning bed. Not right now Mes amis I’m feeling a bit icky.

Double dang it just when we thought we’d helped the salmon out….by restoring their ocean environment and bring them back.

As Boffin #2 I have some experience in this too having been a BC Mines inspector and worked on environmental prescriptions to manage countless tailings issues in the province 30 years ago.

References: You know how to Google… heres’ some key words and phrases

arsenopyrite + mineralology,  serpentine + mineralology, Mount Polley Mine, BC mine tailings, copper toxicity in salmon fry, Quesnel sockeye largest run, arsenic toxicity in salmon fry, …