VICTORIA - The second anniversary of a mining disaster in British Columbia's central Interior was marked with a First Nations protest and a pledge from the company that the situation has improved at the Mount Polley mine.
On Aug. 4, 2014, a tailings storage facility burst at the mine, sending 24 million cubic metres of waste and water into nearby lakes and rivers.
Outside the site on Thursday a group, which includes members of the Secwepemc Women's Warrior Society, protested. They said in a statement that the community is exercising its sovereignty by taking direct action after the B.C. government granted the mine owner Imperial Metals (TSX:Ill) a permit in June to resume full operations.
Kanahus Freedom, a spokeswoman for the warrior society, stated B.C. does not have jurisdiction to grant mining permits to companies "without the free, prior, informed consent of the Secwepemc Tribal Peoples."
"As long as Imperial Metals and the government that backs them continue to devastate our lands with no accountability, we will take whatever action necessary to defend our lands," said a statement from protesters.
Steve Robertson, Imperial Metals vice president of corporate affairs, said late Thursday that the group had left the site without incident and company operations were not disrupted. The mine employs 325 people.
Robertson said earlier that Imperial Metals views the second anniversary of the tailings pond breach as reminder of the mine's continued efforts improve its business.
"We just continue to look at everyday as another day forward where we're actually able to improve things and get back to a normalized operation at Mount Polley."
An independent, government-ordered panel of experts concluded the cause of the tailings breach was an inadequately designed dam at the open pit copper and gold mine that didn't account for drainage and erosion failures beneath the pond.
The disaster prompted reviews and resulted in the province implementing world-leading regulatory standards for the mining industry, Mines Minister Bill Bennett said.
Robertson said the new measures put B.C. at the forefront of global standards for safety at tailings storage facilities at mines.
"I would suggest that the Mount Polley tailings facility is probably one of the best studied facilities anywhere in the world," he said.
The tailings storage facility at Mount Polley has been repaired and improved, Robertson added.
"We have a great deal of confidence that the current engineered design is more than adequate for the task it is required to do."
The Sierra Club of B.C. released a report this week by mining expert David Chambers that concluded the government could do more to ensure safety at tailings storage facilities.
Bennett said since the disaster, the government and Imperial Metals have held hundreds of meetings with First Nations, communities, unions and the mining industry.
Freedom said the protesters at the mine site are not behind the Williams Lake and Soda Creek Indian Bands, who supported re-opening the mine. She could not be reached for comment on Thursday.
Lisa Kraus, vice president of the Likely Chamber of Commerce, said residents of the tiny community closest to the mine site support the operation, but the disaster has created divisions among residents.