It was already a story that the government was trying to pitch in the quietest way possible: in the town of South Book on Monday, people shouldn’t drink from their municipal water supply. Not just right now, anyway.
Here’s how the provincial government put it in a short news release: “Under a non-consumption water advisory, residents should not drink the water or use it for cooking, washing food, brushing teeth, or making juices, baby formulas and ice.”
But this wasn’t the usual boil-water advisory for problems with a chlorination issue — no, this was a water advisory triggered by the collapse of a mining tailings pond dam upstream of South Brook.
The former Gullbridge copper mine is an orphan mine site, one the province was monitoring, one that government-hired consultants had warned was in trouble. The government isn’t sure just yet what might be in the water. The government isn’t sure, just yet, what contaminants may be involved and where they might have gone. Chances are, if there are serious contaminants, they include heavy metals, often a remnant in metals mine tailings.
There is a whole story there — and a familiar one. It’s the one where mining companies harvest what’s valuable from the ground, make a mess, and then either depart for greener pastures or simply close shop. Right across Canada, there are abandoned mine sites that eat up millions of dollars of cleanup costs, expenses that will never wend their way back to any corporate bottom line. It is a familiar story indeed.
- Read more special articles:
- Water supply on watch after mine waste released
- Tailings dam was being reinforced
- South Brook residents wait for word
- Dam went more than a year without repairs before failure
But there’s another story worth thinking about in this case.
You might find the name Gullbridge to be a familiar one.
Why? Because it featured prominently in an editorial in just exactly this spot slightly over a month ago.
The story then was about our efforts to find out just what was going on at the Gullbridge site. The province had budgeted $765,000 to remediate abandoned mines, including Gullbridge. We asked for details under the province’s recently revamped access to information law in May.
Six months later, in early November, we got the response: 54 pages of documents in which every single fact had been scrupulously blacked out. None of the information beyond single lines like “Hope this makes sense” could be released — that information was all cut out to protect cabinet secrecy, to prevent ordinary people from seeing “policy advice” and to protect “the financial/economic interests of a public body.”
So here’s an interesting question: was it in the public interest for people to be aware of the risks that the government knew about after the inspection of an aging tailings pond dam above a municipal water supply?
No, what was in the public interest, according to the provincial government, was to release page after page of emails and documents with every fact blacked out. Well, maybe not the public interest. Maybe just our government’s own interest.
The new and improved accesss act at work.