Tailings dam was being reinforced

Ashley
Ashley Fitzpatrick
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Information flows from government on response to mine waste dump

Bottled water was the order of the day again Tuesday in the town of South Brook, where about 500 people continued to wait for word on the threat to their water supply from mine waste upriver.

About 25 kilometres upstream from the town, the dam holding back tailings at the old Gullbridge copper mine was being reinforced when a section gave way at about 7 a.m. Monday, Minister of Environment and Conservation Tom Hedderson has confirm- ed.

Hedderson is acting as spokesman for at least five provincial government departments working on the issue.

He fielded questions on the mine waste, and the safety of South Brook water, in the House of Assembly, before tackling followup queries from reporters.

He explained the early understanding of what happened is a construction team at the site was removing some material around the dam, when the dam "sprung a leak" and, in short order, a 50-metre-wide gap opened.

"All of the water went right on," he said. "And then I guess the tailings material, basically that spilled out as well."

There were no injuries to the construction crew, but Occupational Health and Safety officials are investigating.

In the interest of safety, Hedderson said, the first step in responding to the dam breach was getting water monitoring in place downstream at the South Brook water supply, and issuing notifications to tell local people not to consume the town water until further notice.

He said environmental testing - including testing for acidity and conductivity - is now searching for any sign of heavy metals migrating down from the tailings impound area.

It may take days or even weeks for what was dumped to make its way to the town, he said. Meanwhile, South Brook will have to continue using bottled water.

Hedderson could not say how much material was released from the tailings dam.

"I couldn't even guess at the volume of it. It was a significant breach. When you talk about 50 metres, that is a significant breach. And the water that was behind it, that was a significant amount of water," he said.

In question period in the House of Assembly, Liberal MHA Randy Edmunds asked why the Gullbridge mine tailings dam was being dealt with now when, he said, it had been "showing instabilities since June 2010."

In front of reporters, the environment minister was similarly asked if the failure of the dam may have been prevented if construction work had been done earlier.

"It's a little bit early to talk about that because I don't know exactly what happened and, out of due regard for the investigation, I'd have to put off answering that question," Hedderson said.

He could not say offhand how many government personnel are in the area, but his department has two water specialists assigned and the Department of Natural Resources had engineers at the site.

He said provincial scientists will take in an aerial view of the area today to see, if they can, how far the main body of mine waste has spread.

"Fortunately, the tailings went out into a bog, so the bog may be a natural filter which may help us tremendously," he said.

"We're also fortunate that prior to the intake (for the water supply) there is a large pond. So any of the water that's going down, that's going to be diluted, but is it going to be diluted enough that you're going to have a safe water supply?"

The pond in question is South Pond, a popular recreation area for local residents.

Kona Beach Park is located there. The Telegram contacted park owner/operator Thad Ciupa. He said he was concerned about how far the mine waste would run, considering the location of his business.

Aside from an initial call from someone telling him not to drink the water, "I haven't heard nothing about it," he said.

Meanwhile, with a salmon river also in the area, a representative of the Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) said the federal government was made aware of the mine waste release. The department has put the issue to staff at Environment Canada, who handle cases involving "the deposit of deleterious substances into fish-bearing waters."

"We're aware of the situation and our staff are available to assist upon request," a DFO spokeswoman said.

In questions raised in the legislature, NDP MHA George Murphy referred to the ongoing situation as an environmental disaster - the only one to use the label.

Murphy later told The Telegram he has many questions about the failure of the tailings dam and what sort of evaluations the government had for the site prior to the dam failing.

"This is just an indication of the number of environmental liabilities we have around the province," Liberal Leader Dwight Ball said, referring to the list of old industrial sites the province is currently responsible for.

afitzpatrick@thetelegram.com

Organizations: Department of Fisheries and Oceans, Department of Natural Resources, Environment Canada

Geographic location: South Brook, South Pond, Kona Beach Park

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