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Tailings disaster disrupts B.C.'s energy plans

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A demonstrator protests against Imperial Metals outside the Toronto Stock Exchange.

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A demonstrator protests against Imperial Metals outside the Toronto Stock Exchange.

VANCOUVER -- Long shackled to a "free enterprise, business is first" ideology, the B.C. Liberals are now facing serious challenges to their plans to make the province a world-class energy hub that will slay the deficit while still harnessing a tourism bonanza based on clean rivers, healthy forests and seemingly endless photos exploring nature's divine beauty.

First came the news the Russians and the Chinese had signed a lengthy agreement to exploit massive natural gas reserves in eastern Asia, followed by a recent announcement one of the leading contenders to build a large liquefied natural gas plant in north-coastal B.C. had decided not to proceed with a project that would have set the scene for additional LNG exports to Asian nations.

Then earlier this month came shocking video evidence nearly 15 million cubic metres of water and potentially toxic silt from a large gold and copper mine tailing pond near Quesnel had burst and was heading downhill towards the lucrative Fraser River sockeye salmon spawning grounds.

Described by one angry First Nations leader as B.C.'s "Exxon Valdez" moment, the broken dam failed despite previous engineering reports warning it was not stable and previous government layoffs of environmental and mines regulators and inspectors.

It seems the government's fondness for making life easier and more financially successful for its big-business buddies by eliminating pesky red tape through deregulation had entered a new unchartered phase of recrimination and doubt.

Suddenly, in newspapers, radio talk shows and television broadcasts, the Liberals were portrayed as not living up to their own breathless mantra of being the only political party capable of running the province in an efficient, 21st-century manner.

Although preliminary water test results have so far not shown unsafe levels of contamination, many questions, quite understandably, still remain about the sludge, which eventually settles at the bottom of rivers and has contained arsenic, lead, cobalt and mercury.

In the past, government ministers always sang loudly the praises of jobs and money, even if they trumped the green environmental card. Now they are scrambling to present the tailings pond catastrophe in a manageable light, saying taxpayers' money won't be used to mitigate a disaster that should not have happened.

For its part, Imperial Metals Ltd., which owns the Mount Polley mine and tailings pond, has sounded contrite, apologetic and eager to manage the horrible tailings pond breach which is being described as the worst in Canada for at least two decades. One analyst suggested the cleanup operation could cost Imperial Metals as much as $200 million plus hefty legal damages.

Aboriginals, fishing-lodge owners, tourism operators and environmentalists are also wary of what the next month might bring as an estimated 1.3 million sockeye salmon are expected to veer from the Fraser River and into the now-troubled Quesnel system.

Not trusting government water-quality test results, local residents now want independent reviews. Meanwhile, a water-quality advisory remains for some of the local communities that get water from the nearby lakes, creeks and rivers.

The tailings pond breach came less than three months after Russia agreed to pump natural gas to energy-hungry China over a 30-year period at a cost of about $400 billion. That news immediately caused consternation in Victoria where the Liberals have been trying to establish a new LNG industry that would allegedly allow British Columbia to eliminate its debt, create thousands of well-paying jobs and open up the northern part of the province to more industrial exploration.

Premier Christy Clark, who has repeatedly linked her future success to the establishment of a new LNG industry, was dealt another blow in late July when Houston-based Apache Corp. announced it would not be proceeding with its 50 per cent share in a multibillion-dollar LNG complex in Kitimat on B.C.'s west coast.

That project, which had already been given the green light by federal regulators, has been seen by many as the poster boy for B.C.'s new LNG industry. Some analysts say Apache's decision to not proceed with the Kitimat operation will make it more difficult for the province to have at least three LNG plants operating by the end of the decade.

Within a few short months, it seems, the provincial government's grandiose plans to successfully exploit B.C.'s natural resources are in severe disarray. In today's world, being a hewer of wood and a drawer of water is more difficult than politicians smiling for endless photo opportunities.


Chris Rose is a Vancouver-based writer.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition August 15, 2014 A11

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