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RDCK works to make HB Mine’s tailings pond safe

RDCK issued a state of emergency for the area surrounding the HB Mine Dam site near Salmo in in July or 2012 after in response to land instability and saturation of the dam retaining walls. — Photo courtesy TMTV NEWS

It is hoped that constant monitoring of the tailings pond at the HB mine site near Salmo, along with a lawsuit designed to bring Teck Mining to the table, will prevent a disaster on the Salmo River similar to the Mount Polley tailings pond collapse earlier this month in the BC Interior.

Mount Polley Mine’s earth dam collapsed on August 4 after a 300 meter section of the dam gave way, spewing millions of cubic meters of water and possibly toxic slurry into sensitive creeks and lakes some 50 kilometers northeast of Williams Lake.

In 2012, the RDCK averted a similar disaster when heavy rains nearly collapsed the earth dam of the HB Mine tailings pond near Salmo on the RDCK’s landfill site.

The collapse could have been disastrous to highway motorists and the Salmo River.

Since then the RDCK has incurred thousands of dollars in monitoring and remediation costs to stabilize the pond and decontaminate the land.

But unlike Imperial Metal’s Mount Polley active mine, HB Mine is closed, but the tailings and pond remain hazardous.

Now the RDCK wants Teck Mining, the company that operated the HB mine from 1951 to 1978, to help pay for remediation and maintenance costs.

“The essence of the RDCK claim is that we have had to undertake a number of actions to prevent contamination, and Tech should participate in this,” said Mike Morrison, resources recovery manager for the RDCK.

Morrison said that during spring and fall when rains are likely to be the heaviest, the HB dam is monitored every week. During other seasons, the dam is monitored every two weeks.

But many more costs have been incurred since 2012 with no end in sight, he said.

In a Civil Notice of Claim filed July 28 at the Vancouver Supreme Court registry, the RDCK alleges that it has had to bear remediation costs like spillway improvements, storm water impoundments and engineered wetlands to ensure the pond water is clean and contained behind the dam at safe levels.

All of the costs are due to the HB mine operated by Teck---then Cominco---the RDCK claims in its lawsuit.

“We have never been able to bring this to a head,” said RDCK Area F director Ron Mickel who spearheaded the action for the RDCK. Mickel is the chair of the Central Waste Committee for the regional district.

As the statute of limitations for filing a lawsuit drew near, Mickel decided to take action after failing to get Teck to the table to determine remediation costs.

“They (Cominco) took a lot of money out of that hole and then sold off their liability,” said Mickel.

“We’re hoping that Teck will come to the table to seek solutions that don’t cause problems in the future and that we can arrive at some cost sharing.”

Just who is responsible for the contaminated land and tailings pond is a key issue.

Mickel claims that Teck holds a permit for mining on the land and must share responsibility for past and future problems.

Under the Contaminated Site regulations, the contaminator is responsible regardless of who owns the land, says Mickel. “They have some responsibility for downstream impacts.”

But in a written statement from Teck’s senior communication specialist Chris Stannell, “this property is part of the HB Mine, a dormant lead-zinc-silver mine that was owned and operated by Teck (Cominco) between 1955 and 1978,” he said.

“The property was sold to another company in 1981, and was subsequently owned by other parties between 1981 and 1998.

 “In 1998, the Regional District of Central Kootenay (RDCK) acquired the property for use in connection with its landfill, and the District has been maintaining the dam and arranging for independent inspections under a Mines Act permit ever since.”

Teck has not yet filed a statement of defence.

“We will review the claim with counsel and we intend to respond in due course,” Stannell said.

In the meantime, taxpayers are stuck with a legacy that continues to cost money, says Morrison. “The way mines were operated in the 20th century, we are still paying for decisions made a long time ago.”