Rocks in the Head, not in the Dam — the idiocy behind the Mount Polley, British Columbia mining disaster

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— an investigative report and comedy relief by Christopher Johnson —

Before I offend an entire province, I should say that Canada has a $52 billion mining industry and more than 1000 toxic dumps known otherwise as “tailing ponds” to confuse the public into thinking these ponds are full of frogs, fish and other creatures with tails.


So, the lunacy at the heart of British Columbia’s political economy is not only in British Columbia. It’s just wackier on the west coast.

Growing up in five provinces, the first thing I knew about BC was that its longest serving Premier (from 1952 to 1972) was named Wacky (as in W.A.C. Bennett).

I learned more about the province from my college roommate in Ottawa, who fled BC in order to get a better education and job.

Later, as I lived on-and-off in BC roughly from 1991 to 2005, I’d discover an abundance of radical, thoughtful, mellow denizens who care deeply about the environment and well-being of humanity.



But it seems none of them had any power to stop the falling dominos of idiocies that led to the Mount Polley toxic spill, one of the worst eco-disasters in world history never reported in US media. 



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It begins in the 1800s with the idea of importing sunstroked sea-men into rain-forests locked behind mountains and six months of cloud cover. They apparently weren’t happy there, so they set out to clear-cut, burn and mine any place that most visitors would consider the most virginal Eden on Earth.

Fast-forward a few centuries, and a Calgary-based mining company, upon seeing the majestic fjords of the Cariboo region, decided to scalp a mountain and extract gold and copper there.

It wasn’t enough to provide jobs to locals and earnings to investors. In Beautiful Columbia, everybody wants more, more, more. The company wanted more gold and copper, and greater profits, and this resulted in greater stress on the toxic dump “safely” tucked in pools of muck behind earthen walls.

Apparently, the Imperial Metals company, desperate for increased profits, used trucks to haul ore and precious metals instead of rocks needed to bolster the dam made of dirt, clay and BC bud. When worried workers complained about a coming calamity, the Bosses — possibly on that same BC bud — ignored them until the workers got rich at slot machines or quit, saying “God damn this God-damn dam.”



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I know all about grudges and BC labour conditions first-hand. In BC, I got fired (or quit) jobs as a tree-planter, driver, tour guide, teacher, reporter, poet, singer-songwriter, Olympic organizer/protester and hobo. I was just waiting for a cataclysm in order to talk to reporters and blame my bosses. But nobody would listen to me, even when I predicted that an earthquake and tsunami would drown empty West-Side homes and Coal Harbour condos full of money and children laundered from China and India.

The tsunami did come, but it was an inland tsunami of toxic sludge from the Mount Polley mine cascading down Hazeltine Creek toward Quesnel Lake. It would have been covered up, denied and rebranded as a sort of “waterslide” if not for this helicopter video footage.


The disaster forced company and government officials to think fast. The mine’s manager, when asked if he’d drink the toxic sludge through a straw, could have said, “that’s a hypothetical question” or “we need more data” or “I’m not that thirsty, actually.” Instead, he said: “Sure, I’ll drink it.” Never mind that he qualified this statement with “but only after they’ve removed the arsenic, mercury, cadmium and plutonium from the water.” Canadian media jumped on his sound-bite and succeeded in ruining his credibility and knocking $500 million in market value from the company, whose stock sank 44 percent in one session.


BC Premier Christy Clark could have put on her hard-hat and flown over the disaster site immediately, as an intrepid Canadian Press photographer did. But she had more important business. She had to hide the inconvenient fact that Imperial Metal’s main shareholder organized a fundraiser in Calgary to help re-elect her. I imagine their back-room conversation went like this:

“Here’s a million dollars for your re-election,” said the billionaire shareholder. “Just don’t forget us when our tailing pond overflows.”

“Um, well, OK,” said Clark.


Clark had to hide away for three days to conjure a way to put a “positive spin” on the mass murder of trees, mosses, lichens, fungi, beavers, deer, moose, bears, woodpeckers, hawks, eagles, owls, kingfishers, bees, ants, mosquitos, black flies and about 72 million salmon sniffing their way home up the Fraser River, some 80 kilometers from the damned site.

Her solution?

Let’s threaten to fine the company, owned by a Calgary billionaire, the grand total of $300,000. (‘That’ll show’em!’)

Let’s say this has never happened before.

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Instead of an independent public inquiry, let’s have the fox investigate the hen house and close the barn doors after the horses have run away.


Let’s draw this out over weeks and months, when nobody cares anymore if they’ve got arsenic in their artichokes or cadmium in their Cadbury.

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Let’s test the water in the deepest lake we can find, and tell everybody, before results come in, that the results are “promising”.

Testing the water in Quesnel Lake, instead of the toxified Polley Lake or Hazeltine Creek, is a little like sampling air quality in West Vancouver to determine the health of vagabonds like me on the Downtown East Side. It was a red herring, dangling from a glittering hook and sinker, and hundreds of commenters on websites smelled the rotten fish well in advance.

Yet several media organizations took the bait, because it’s summer and they were fishing for a “feel good” angle to the story.

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Never mind the threat to salmon. Never mind the hazards of cancerous metals festering in sediment or the open, waiting to be transported downstream by rain, snow, wind and canoe.

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Never mind that it was too dangerous to go anywhere near the toxic sludge on Hazeltine Creek and Polley Lake, now two meters above normal height and ready to bust out like an aging Wreck Beach hippy. Clark and her cronies declared “the water” safe to drink, though nobody should drink it, just in case it’s not actually safe.


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More than a few media organizations bought it. There was a happy ending to the crisis, and the story moved off the front pages. And local leaders were telling tourists to come visit them (just bring your own water, shower, food and air).

If it all sounds idiotic, it is. But there’s something deeper and more troubling here than just a negligent government in collusion with a reckless mining industry and feckless media industry.

It’s the fact that people become stupider when in British Columbia. Look what happens when talented hockey players move to Vancouver — they never win a Stanley Cup, and their loyal fans destroy the city to show their loyalty. Or how about the Winter Olympics? The Five-Ring Circus loses money in almost every city, but not in Vancouver, where people are naive enough to believe the hype and not realize that only Canadians were competing in most of the events.

I myself have done moronic things in BC that I wouldn’t do elsewhere. I wouldn’t do drugs in places where I needed them — Iraq, Afghanistan, the Full Moon Party in Thailand — but land me in BC and I’m merrily exposed to the second-hand smoke wafting through the air. Whatever brain cells I brought with me from out-of-province, they’re no longer accessible in BC. Dopey and giddy, I’ve managed to befriend, date and live with the coolest, hippest, raddest people — and then end up sleeping in a youth hostel or driftwood wormhole — all because I somehow lose my mind in BC, just like everybody else.

And I’m surely not alone in wanting to flee BC for my health. Travel across Canada, the US, Europe and Asia, and you’ll find more people from BC than any other province (except Newfoundland, now part of Alberta). That’s because BCers can’t afford a home in BC, there’s no room for them among the Albertans, Skatchers, Manitobans and Torontonians, and they’re desperate for a political economy based on something more than denuding nature and selling the future to foreigners.

BCers complain they never get to elect governments in Ottawa, but that’s because their mayors and premiers represent the governments of China, Japan, India, Israel and whoever makes ferries, yoga mats and bicycles.

All of which is why we should elect former Vancouver Sun Managing Editor Kirk LaPointe for mayor.

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He’s the best possible person to lead Vancouver and all of BC for that matter. Why? Because he’s not from BC, he’s not educated in BC, he didn’t become successful or rich in BC, and he still thinks and acts like a person from suburban Toronto, which means that he actually thinks and acts. In fact, he technically doesn’t even live in Vancouver; he lives on endowment lands at UBC, which is actually part of Asia. He’s never worked as a miner or logger, he doesn’t have an uncle famous in Maoist China, and he’s probably not smart enough to invest in resource companies either. He likes the auto industry, transparency and the Toronto Maple Leafs, all of which have nothing to do with propping up the resource industry.

Therefore, he’s exactly what BC needs — somebody who doesn’t act or think like somebody from BC.

A full-time journalist and unemployable trouble-maker since 1984, Christopher Johnson has traveled in 100 countries and 8 war zones, and been expelled from Japan, China, Russia and Afghanistan. He was a CAJ finalist for Best Online Media in 2013.