by Gordon Hoekstra and Matthew Robinson, Vancouver Sun
Imperial Metals offices and mine site were raided Tuesday to obtain evidence in the provincial and federal investigation into the Mount Polley mine tailings dam failure.
The search warrant was executed as part of a joint investigation by Environment Canada, its enforcement branch, Fisheries and Oceans Canada and the RCMP, said B.C. Conservation Office inspector Chris Doyle.
While Doyle said he could not say on whom or where the warrant was executed, Imperial Metals confirmed late Tuesday a search warrant was executed on its offices in downtown Vancouver and at the Mount Polley mine site near Likely in the B.C. Interior, 100 kilometres northeast of Williams Lake.
In downtown Vancouver Tuesday evening, uniformed conservation officers — some who wore what appeared to be bulletproof vests — could be spotted looking through Imperial Metals’ offices and documents on the second floor of 580 Hornby St.
Dave Hill, a security guard at the building, said officers had locked down the floor. He said they went up carrying bags and it “looked like they’ll be there a while.”
Doyle said he could not say what information they had used to obtain the search warrant or elaborate on why action was being taken now. The dam failure occurred on Aug. 4.
Doyle said they were gathering evidence to be presented to provincial and federal Crown prosecutors.
The investigation could lead to charges and fines.
“The investigation primarily focuses on offences with respect to the environmental management act (B.C. legislation) and the federal Fisheries Act, but is not limited to those acts,” Doyle said in an interview.
He said the investigation team uses “myriad” techniques to gather evidence, including interviewing witnesses and gathering technical evidence. “Because it’s still an ongoing investigation we don’t want to release any particulars that might jeopardize the investigation,” said Doyle.
In a written statement, Imperial Metals said the search warrants related to an investigation into possible breaches of the Fisheries Act.
“The company understands warrants to be a normal means of investigation, and cooperated fully with the regulatory authorities,” said the short statement.
John Horgan, the leader of the B.C. NDP, asked how the Liberal government had not already gathered “every possible relevant document from the company.”
“We don’t yet have details about the basis for warrants, but I’m very concerned it is only happening now — six months after the disaster. Would not both the engineers’ report and the offence investigation benefited from having Imperial Metals’ documents earlier?”
The execution of the search warrants comes on the heels of the release last week of the findings of an expert engineering panel into the cause of the tailings dam failure.
The three-member panel, chaired by University of Alberta professor emeritus Norbert Morgenstern, concluded the root cause of the failure was a design problem that failed to account for a weak glacial soil layer beneath the foundation of the dam. The panel also had other concerns, including that the dam slopes were steeper than original designed and a failure to create proper beaches from finely ground rock (called tailings) meant to provide a safety buffer between water and the dam.
Knight Piesold designed the dam in the late 1990s and was engineer of record until 2011, when AMEC took over engineering oversight of the dam.
The dam failure released millions of cubic metres of water and tailings containing potentially toxic metals into the Quesnel Lake watershed.
The wave of water scoured and widened nine-kilometre long Hazeltine Creek, carrying away trees, foliage and dirt along with the tailings.
The creek was home to spawning trout and Coho salmon.
The tailings also surged into Quesnel Lake, the migration path of more than one million sockeye salmon. A plume of sediment estimated at “many” tens of square kilometres by University of B.C. scientists has been turning the lake and Quesnel River a cloudy green colour and elevating levels of metals at times above aquatic health guidelines. It has sparked concerns from residents and First Nations on the long-term environmental impacts of the dam failure and tailings spill.
The office of the chief inspector of mines also has an investigation underway into the dam failure, expected to be complete by June.