The Minister of Environment would have never guessed the people of South Brook would be able to drink their town’s water as early as Christmas Eve.
In fact, on Dec. 19, Tom Hedderson said he expected the non-consumption advisory on the town’s water supply would be in effect into 2013.
The health advisory was put in place two days prior, on Dec. 17, when an old tailings impoundment broke open at an abandoned copper mine about 25 kilometres upriver from the community.
“It will be beyond Christmas before we give the OK. ... I’m suspecting we’d be into January before we would finally lift that (water) advisory,” the minister said on CBC Radio’s Central Morning Show following the breach.
At that time, Hedderson said he would not be comfortable with only the earliest results from water testing in the area. Considering the distance from the mine site to the water intake, he said, there would need to be results showing the waste from Gullbridge mine had “run its course” in the water system.
Yet the non-consumption advisory ended Dec. 24.
“The lab results of the various samples taken from the town’s water supply following the failure of the dam at the former Gullbridge mine site indicate that it has not been contaminated,” reads a news release from Hedderson’s department at the time.
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On Thursday, spokeswoman Tina Coffey explained the discrepancy between the minister’s comments and the clearing of South Brook’s town water.
It was due to unexpectedly swift lab work, she stated, in a detailed, emailed response to questions.
From Dec. 17-24, spot tests were conducted at various sites between the old mine and the town’s water supply intake. “These field tests did not indicate any change in the water quality,” she stated.
However, the confidence to lift the water ban came from a close look at collected water samples at a government-contracted laboratory in Ontario.
“Generally, under normal circumstances, the turn-around time for chemical water analysis is about three to four weeks. Fortunately, Exova Accutest Water Testing Lab was highly considerate of the situation and analyzed samples collected on Dec. 17-19 on a rush basis,” Coffey stated.
Results were emailed back to the province on Dec. 22.
“A decision based on the results of one day’s sample would have been premature. On Dec. 24, the lab emailed analysis results of samples collected on December 18-19. The results were reviewed in light of the Guidelines for Canadian Drinking Water Quality and they were found to meet the guidelines.
“Additionally, detailed site inspections, hydraulic analysis and review of related data all contributed to a complete understanding of the impact of the breach on South Brook’s water supply. Based on this, the Medical Officer of Health rescinded the non-consumption advisory.”
Staff with the Department of Environment are continuing to take water samples in the area on a weekly basis. The department now has a web page offering photos of the mine tailings dam, information on the breach and the latest lab results. It can be found at www.env.gov.nl.ca, under “Water Resources.”
As for the mess around the old mine, staff with the Department of Natural Resources have a temporary barrier set up for tailings containment. Plans for a cleanup are in the works.