Quesnel Lake
Quesnel Lake, pictured above, and Polley lake were flooded with over a billion gallons of toxic effluent when the Mount Polley tailings pond dam burst on August 4th (photo: Larry Griffiths).

There's a tired old joke about discerning lying politicians by observing the mobility of their lips and there is a close parallel to mines and their assertions about the hazards of their operations.

Before a mine can begin operation in the US, owners must submit Environmental Impact Statements (EIS) to the federal government. The percentage of mines that predict low impacts to water quality in their EISs is 100%, according to a 2008 report by the US Fish and Wildlife Service. In actuality, the number that actually pollute ground and surface waters is summed up in the report by a simple phrase: "the majority".

While one could attribute evil intent to the assertions of safety made by mine owners, I think it more likely to be driven by hubris buoyed by a healthy dose of greed. Though, given more thought, that may be the definition of evil. Whatever the case, I'm sure there are a lot of folks who actually believe what they're doing is right despite startling evidence to the contrary.

Last week the dam at a tailing pond at the Mount Polley mine in British Columbia failed. It let loose a 1.4 billion gallon torrent of poison into the headwaters of the Fraser River, home to epic salmon runs. While it has been said that the true impact on the river system will not be known for years, I'm doubtful that the wildlife buried under tons of sediment last week are taking the long view.

In one of those deep ironies the will haunt engineers for minutes, the firm that designed the failed Mount Polley dam, Knight Piesold Ltd, is also the firm that provided preliminary designs for the tailing pond dams at Pebble Mine in the Bristol Bay region of Alaska. It is also the same firm that last year provided a rebuttal to the Environmental Protection Agency’s Pebble Mine assessment claiming that modern dams don't fail. Of course that's the theory. Unfortunately, salmon and people don't live in theory, they live in reality. And the reality looks a lot more like the Mount Polley dam did on the morning of August 5th.

To be fair, Knight Piesold Ltd was the engineer of record on Mount Polley only until March 2011, at which time they handed responsibility over to a new firm, AMEC Earth and Environmental. Knight Piesold bailed on Mount Polley because they didn't like how the mine operator was running their dam. For some reason, this bunch of flawless engineers assumed that companies would operate with flawless perfection as they pursued profits. Apparently, such perfection is reserved only for engineers.

Now that Knight Piesold has had some real world experience with the subject of dam designs and operations it would be refreshing to see them revise their commentary on the assessment of Pebble Mine. My gut tells me they're not going to make any such changes. For, surely it was only the morons at Mount Polley who are incapable of operating a mine safely and the good folks at Pebble will abide with the solemn promises they've made in the press. And Knight Piesold will have their back. So long as the checks keep clearing.