Looking east along the H.B. dam crest. Photo: Regional District of Central Kootenay

RDCK approves loan request to remediate Salmo tailings site

The H.B. Mine tailings pond poses a risk of toxic contamination

The Regional District of Central Kootenay (RDCK) will borrow up to $3,933,000 to remediate and close the H.B. Mine tailings site near Salmo.

The RDCK board approved the loan request at its September meeting. The RDCK’s Uli Wolf says the expenditure is cheaper and less risky than the only alternative, which would be to do nothing. The site is the subject of an ongoing lawsuit between the RDCK and Teck Resources.

“That would have cost $6.6 million in long-term costs — monitoring, compliance, engineering, etc. — more than the project we are proposing.”

It would become even more expensive — $46 million to $83 million more — in the event of environmental damage from the possible failure of the tailings dam, identified as a clear risk by RDCK engineers.

In 2012, the dam nearly collapsed after heavy rains.

The tailings storage facility is an earthen dam that stores ponded water and fine tailings left after Teck (formerly Cominco) extracted lead and zinc ore from the nearby H.B. Mine until 1978. The dam is 240 metres long, seven metres wide at the crest, and 27 metres tall.

In August, the question of whether to borrow the money was put to an alternative approval process (formerly known as a counter-petition), which is not a full-fledged referendum. Instead, the process asks residents to vote only if they oppose borrowing the money. If fewer than 10 per cent of electors vote against it, the project will go ahead.

Twenty-two people voted against the borrowing initiative during the month of August.

The RDCK expects to obtain grants to cover up to 90 per cent of the cost of the project, but the alternative approval process rules state that the worst-case cost estimate has to be presented to the voting public.

History

The RDCK purchased the tailings site in 1998 to allow an extension of it its landfill site next door, which was overflowing. The purchase was controversial, according to regional director Hans Cunningham.

He told the Star that the owner of the site at the time, New Dawn Resources (which had bought the site from Teck), wanted to put housing on part of the site, but complained that the RDCK landfill was leaching onto it. New Dawn Resources then threatened legal action, Cunningham told the Star this month.

“Buying it was cheaper than relocation or getting sued.”

Since the purchase, the RDCK has regularly monitored and assessed the tailings facility. It shut the landfill down in 2014 and then covered and re-vegetated it.

The work

The first step will be to create an outfall in the dam so that the pond behind it is eliminated, according to Wolf.

“There will be lined ditch that will carry most of the water. After we are done there will be no standing water, and it will be relatively dry,” he said, adding that this would eliminate the safety hazard presented by the dam.

Wolf said the released water will not be contaminated by the tailings because it will be released slowly. It’s only if the stream reaches a certain velocity that it picks up contaminants like fine tailings and silty material.

He said that work will be done in 2019.

After that, soil material will be placed on top of the tailings and the area re-vegetated.

Lawsuit

In 2014, the RDCK filed a lawsuit against Teck to recover the costs of having to maintain, monitor, investigate, decommission and otherwise deal with the contaminated site. If the suit is successful, this will help pay for the work and decrease the amount that has to be borrowed.

Wolf said the RDCK and the company are now in negotiations to try to settle the case.

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