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Inevitable spills of mining toxins demand oversight

An environmental mess in its own right, the failure of an Imperial Metals tailings pond that sent millions of litres of contaminants into a B.C. water system is another reminder that efforts to prevent spills are inadequate. It’s sure to spark another round of debates over oil pipelines, through B.C.’s pristine wilderness or elsewhere.

The collapse of a tailings pond at the Mount Polley mine released some 10 million cubic metres of water and 4.5 million cubic metres of toxic silt into Polley Lake and Quesnel Lake, according to early estimates. The toxins in the pond included arsenic, lead and other heavy metals.

The pollutants pose a potential threat to a breeding ground for wild salmon, with spawning runs set to begin later this month.

It will be interesting to see just how much of the blame and cost will be borne by the company. Reports say Imperial and the Ministry of the Environment have been warned for years about the risk of a breach of the tailing pond, which has continued to grow as more waste from mining was channelled into it. The cleanup effort and the repercussions are very much germane to the Northern Gateway pipeline that would take Alberta bitumen from the tar sands to the B.C. coast for export overseas. Already unpopular, the project and other efforts to move bitumen will see increased scrutiny even though this involves a company with gold and copper mines, not oil.

Moving bitumen or other oil products also poses an environmental threat, despite constant assurances about the safety of pipelines. In Alberta alone there have been thousands of pipeline ruptures since 2005, spilling the equivalent of some 28 million litres of oil. In 2010, for instance, the province’s pipelines had some kind of failure every 1.4 days, releasing about 3.4 million litres of oil.

Pipeline problems aren’t rare, but supporters essentially tell us that the spills are the price of doing business, the business of feeding our oil addiction. As long as we’re so reliant on oil – and other mined products – we’ll be taking it out of the ground and moving it around in large volumes. That doesn’t mean, however, that we shouldn’t be more careful about how we do that while we go about finding alternatives.

In the climate of reduced environmental oversight, particularly in Ottawa, the government claims it’s simply streamlining the environmental process, rather than stifling public input. However, reductions come even as numerous studies have shown efforts to date have been inadequate, with the situation only getting worse as tar sands production increases.

It’s no coincidence that the reduction in environmental regulations comes as the Harper government pushes for extremely controversial pipelines to send the bitumen south (Keystone XL) or to China via the British Columbia coast (Northern Gateway).

Such tactics reek of people with something to hide. Clearly, the oil industry is in a negative light. That goes double for the tar sands. Perhaps they fear an informed public would be even more hostile to oil. Oil offers us many advantages, which we may or may not choose to enjoy over the many negatives. While we use the stuff, we’re all complicit in the pollution, habitat destruction and increased cancer rates and other health problems that come with that arrangement. That’s no reason, however, to cut off debate about how we might start changing the situation.

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