A Breach of Human Rights - The Impact of the Mount Polley Mine Disaster, British Columbia

Amnesty International Canada

The Mount Polley tailings pond breach on August 4, 2014 is the worst environmental mining disaster in BC’s history. The disaster shook the public’s confidence in the province’s ability to protect their human rights and the environment from harms caused by the Mount Polley tailings dam failure. In Amnesty International’s view, the disaster raises serious questions about the province`s ability to protect British Columbians’ economic, social, cultural, Indigenous and universal human rights under current mining regulations.

In this briefing, A Breach of Human Rights: The Human Rights Impacts of the Mount Polley Mine Disaster, British Columbia, Canada”, Amnesty International provides an overview of our findings regarding the human rights impacts of the Mount Polley disaster and our concerns about potential on-going impacts that, if left unaddressed, could result in further human rights harms. The briefing proposes recommendations to the provincial government, aimed at restoring public confidence in the province’s ability to effectively regulate the mining sector and comply with its human rights obligations.

On August 4, 2014, the Mount Polley mine’s four square kilometre tailing ponds failed. The breach released over 24 million cubic metres of water and mine tailings into surrounding waterways. The Mount Polley copper and gold mine is situated near Quesnel Lake, one of the world’s deepest fjord lakes, where up to 25% of all salmon in BC return to spawn. The annual salmon run is of economic, social, cultural and nutritional significance to settler communities as well as Indigenous peoples within the Secwepemc Nation and surrounding Indigenous communities.

This report examines the events surrounding the failure of the Mount Polley tailings storage facility and summarizes Canada’s international human rights obligations which must be enforced in British Columbia as prescribed by international human rights law.

Key Findings

  • People’s human rights were put at risk by the Mount Polley disaster.
  • The rights of Indigenous peoples were harmed by the disaster.
  • The province approved the discharge of mine waste water into Quesnel Lake, despite several important but outstanding impacts reports.
  • Area residents say the government has not listened to their concerns about the potential long-term impacts of effluent discharge into Quesnel Lake.
  • Financial surety requirements are not robust enough to satisfy the Polluter Pays Principle, leaving British Columbians open to greater risk.
  • MEM is perceived to be at risk of regulatory capture.
  • BC’s mining laws, regulations and policies urgently need reform to bring them in line with Canada’s international human rights obligations.

Key Recommandations

  • Amnesty International believes a public inquiry into BC’s mining regulatory regime could  identify gaps in human rights protections and identify measures required to bring the province’s laws, regulations and policies in line with Canada’s human rights obligations;
  • In order for the public to truly assess the human rights impacts of the Mount Polley disaster and understand the necessary remedy and reparations, the province should release the findings of a number of impact studies it ordered as well as the findings of the Conservation Officer Service’s investigation into possible breaches of the law;
  • Appropriate charges should be laid where there is evidence of wrongdoing;
  • Ensure Canada’s obligations to respect and uphold the rights of Indigenous peoples are fulfilled in all government policies and decisions with respect to resource development;
  • Concerns about regulatory capture and over-reliance on company testing must be addressed. In order to avoid potential or perceived conflicts of interest, we support the Auditor General’s recommendation that an independent compliance and enforcement office be created;
  • Ensure that all environmental and operational reports and studies, and monitoring and testing results, including compliance verification, are made available in a timely fashion to the public.


In 2015, 2016, and 2017, Amnesty International travelled to Likely and Williams Lake, BC to assess the human rights impacts of the 2014 Mount Polley tailings pond breach. Researchers considered impacts on the rights to water, adequate standard of living, a healthy environment, access to information, remedy and reparations, and cultural rights (the rights of Indigenous peoples to use and enjoy their traditional lands).

Researchers met with area residents, local authorities, the union (Steelworkers local 1-425), directly-affected and downstream First Nations, and civil society groups. We wrote to the Ministry of Energy and Mines and the Ministry of Environment. We received a written reply for the MOE. We sought meetings and a site tour from Mount Polley Mining Corporation (MPMC) and its parent company, Imperial Metals. Neither Imperial Metals nor MPMC responded to our requests.

Amnesty International monitors governments’ obligations to protect human rights in the context of business activities and the corporate responsibility to respect human rights. Important guidance on corporate accountability in a business context includes the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, as well as other international human rights instruments, such as the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and the UN Basic Principles and Guidelines on the Rights to Remedy and Reparations.

Amnesty International does not take a position for or against mining. We call for rigorous protections of human rights throughout the life-cycle of a project, including assessing its human rights impact, upholding the duty to consult and meaningful consultation and compliance with the presumed requirement that the free, prior, informed consent of Indigenous peoples will be required. In light of the Mount Polley disaster, it is Amnesty International’s view that BC’s mining regulatory framework must be urgently reformed and brought into compliance with Canada’s international human rights obligations. Harms resulting from mining disasters must not be compounded by the State’s failures to uphold rights, including the right to remedy and reparations. The rights of Indigenous peoples must be at the centre of these reforms.  

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Elizabeth Berton-Hunter, Media Relations (Toronto), +1-416-363-9933 ext. 332, [email protected]