The provincial government is deciding what to do next at the former Gullbridge copper mine in central Newfoundland.
Whatever the decision, government is responsible for cleanup at the site.
The tailings dam at the abandoned mine failed on Dec. 17, 2012, as Marine Contractors started on work on the aging structure, under a contract with the Department of Natural Resources.
The breach released mine waste into the waters of nearby South Brook. It required response from five provincial government departments, the federal government and the Town of South Brook, located about 26 kilometres downstream from the abandoned mine.
Work on the dam was being completed under a permit issued to the Department of Natural Resources by the provincial Department of Environment.
“Any areas adversely affected by this project must be restored to a state that resembles local natural conditions,” that permit states.
It also demands work be carried out in a way that prevents the pollution of the surrounding environment.
A copy of the permit — along with communications in and out of the minister’s office about the dam failure — were obtained by The Telegram through an access to information request.
“It might be noted that having the (contracted) repairs underway enabled a quick response and the ability to ensure drinking water precautions were taken,” noted David Liverman, assistant director of the Mines branch within the Department of Natural Resources, in an email to several officials within the department the day after the dam failure.
“If it had failed (at) a time when no activity was taking place, the breach might not have been noticed for some time.”
While government was quickly made aware the tailings dam had broken open, the response was slowed by a lack of ready information.
The dam failed at 7 a.m. A public advisory noting the loss of the dam was issued jointly by the Department of Health and Department of Environment at 2 p.m. It stated residents of the town of South Brook were being advised not to drink their water, use it for cooking or otherwise consume it in any way.
The Telegram had questions but, as previously reported, little information was forthcoming.
In reality, little was known at the time, according to interdepartmental emails.
Incorrect information was included in the first public notices. For example, the first news release put the size of the breach at
50 metres wide. By the next day, it was down to 25 metres.
“I note that there are some information points that have changed, such as the size of the breach,” noted assistant deputy minister for Environment, Martin Goebel, in an email response to internal notes from Dec. 18.
“Obviously we are getting more concise information now that personnel are on-site. I assume we are getting measurements rather than visual estimates.”
In response to its information request, The Telegram was told there were no relevant emails through Environment Minister Tom Hedderson’s office on the day of the dam breach, although Hedderson was point man for five government departments on the file.
That said, correspondence from the days following the dam break shows there were staff members within the five departments involved — in particular the Department of Environment and Department of Natural Resources — who went above and beyond in response to the event.
Two staff members from Environment were sent into the field the day of the dam failure to assess the situation on the ground and gather water samples.
“Access to South Brook below the dam breach was quite difficult. Partially frozen ground (bog), massive chunk of ice and an abundance of tailing made travel on foot very challenging. ... As the tailings dry out, there is an abundance of dust and mud on the trees and vegetation. Environment and Conservation representatives were quite dirty and found their eyes burning,” notes a status update on the response compiled by Haseen Khan, the director of the department’s water resource management division, on Dec. 18.
The contractors working at the site were “demobilized” in the days that followed.
“The Department of Natural Resources is in receipt of a (follow-up) report which is under review by officials within the department. The report identifies possible causes, and provides recommendations for next steps. A decision on how next to proceed has not yet been identified,” a spokeswoman for the department stated in response to a request for an update on site activities Thursday.
Meanwhile, while the next step is being decided upon, a representative for the grassroots Sandy Pond Alliance says that group is preparing a presentation to government on the topic of orphaned and abandoned mine sites, as part of pre-budget consultations.
The group is calling on government “to prevent further spills of toxic materials from abandoned mines and tailings ponds into Newfoundland and Labrador rivers streams and waterways,” according to an emailed statement from Fred Winsor.
The Department of Natural Resources says it now holds up-to-date reports on the status of orphaned and abandoned mines with tailings impoundments. A department official has told The Telegram it does not expect another failure akin to Gullbridge.