What are the odds of another disaster like the Mount Polley’s tailings pond breach?

“A breach of the tailings pond on Mount Polley Mine sent five million cubic metres (5,000,000,000 litres) of toxic waste into Hazeltine Creek, Quesnel Lake and Polley Lake, with fears it could spread far and wide in the coming days.”
-Global News

Nature Canada has posted on social media about the disastrous events at Mount Polley Mine near Likely, BC yesterday.

As the scope of the disaster spreads, it’s worth asking: What are the risks that one of the hundreds of dams holding back highly toxic oil sands tailings will breach similar to Mount Polley, possibly eliminating aquatic nature in the Athabasca River from Fort MacMurray to Fort Chipewyan?

Actually we don’t know because the Alberta Energy Regulator and recent review panels for the Jackpine Expansion, Joslyn North and Kearl oil sands mines didn’t bother to examine the risks seriously. Globally, the annual risk of a major tailings dam failure is roughly one in 700. But oil sands regulators have concluded based on information not available to the public that the such risks of a breach are remote, and therefore that the potential environmental damage caused by a breach did not need to be assessed.

Mount Polley is a catastrophe. A similar breach of an oil sands tailings dam would be an unimaginable catastrophe for the Athabasca River.

Stay tuned for more information from Nature Canada.


This blog post is by Nature Canada’s Interim Executive Director, Stephen Hazel. Mr. Hazel is an environmental lawyer who has spent his career fighting on behalf of nature. He is the former Executive Director of the Sierra Club and the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society (CPAWS). He has held senior management positions in four national environmental organizations, a federal government agency, a leading Ottawa-based consulting firm, and as the founder of Ecovision Law.