Water supply on watch after mine waste released

Ashley Fitzpatrick
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Little information available as town waits for test results

The dam around waste from the former Gullbridge copper mine has given way, but as of deadline Monday night, with three different government departments on the issue, The Telegram could not uncover what had been sent downstream towards the town of South Brook.

The provincial Department of Environment stated a 50-metre-wide break in the tailings dam at the old mine site was discovered earlier Monday.

The gap was the full height of the dam, according to a written statement, offering limited information.

Exactly when the breach was discovered, what was potentially released and in what quantity was not reported.

The Telegram has been assured officials would be available with more information today.

Meanwhile, the tailings impound area is located about 20 kilometres from the main water supply for the town of South Brook. The town numbered just under 500 as of the 2011 census.

After discovery of the breech, the province issued an advisory as a precautionary measure, warning South Brook residents not to drink the town water.

By early Monday afternoon, about 25 volunteers were unloading bottles of True North water from a truck at the town office. Stepping off the passing line and into the building, South Brook Mayor Paul Mills gave his arms a break and took up the phone.

"Our town water comes from a well, but if the water levels in the river are high enough, then there could be some cross-contamination," he said of the mine waste area upstream.

"We're waiting for formal testing to take place."

Water samples have been gathered. No details on the tests - what they are looking for or what area they cover - has been released.

Residents of South Brook are being advised not to consume the water in any way until the provincial government issues an all-clear.

"I expect it's going to take a number of tests over a period of time before we're given the all-clear," the mayor said.

After being notified of the tailings dam breech in the morning, Mills said, South Brook's emergency plan allowed volunteers to be contacted quickly, required measures to be brought into place and notifications made.

He said the town is using the emergency plan, but is not in a state of emergency.

Mills said bottles of water are being made available at the town office and can be delivered.

As for cost of the water, "(the company has) responded to our request for water and we're going to do the settling up after the fact," he said.

While the aftermath of a breech in the old tailings dam is being dealt with, the provincial government may have already approved construction work to fix the same dam.

A tender call went for work this summer and closed Oct. 2.

"They were tendering this. They were on top of it," noted Mining Industry NL's Gerry O'Connell when asked about the old mine site.

As far as he was aware, he said, the copper mine was last in operation from 1967-71, at a time when environmental considerations were less of a priority for companies, and provincial legislation did not require cleanup costs to be considered up front.

"These (mine tailings) are legacy issues. No one's certainly proud of this, but they come back to haunt us," he said.

And there are questions to be asked around the timing of the failing of this particular dam.

Back in May, The Telegram filed an access to information request for communications related to the government's decision to invest $765,000 into mine site rehabilitation, including the dam at the Gullbridge copper mine.

Almost all of the communication, about 40 pages, was redacted. However, there was reference to an official asking for a cost estimate for "the 'fix' at Gullbridge."

That email dates back to Nov. 1, 2011.

Organizations: The Telegram, Department of Environment

Geographic location: South Brook

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