It was probably the first time since the Cariboo Gold Rush of the 1860s that the little town of Likely made international headlines.
On August 4, a dam containing the tailings pond at the Mount Polley mine in central B.C. failed.
Mines concentrate valuable ore by grinding huge chunks of raw rock into a fine flour. The heavier metal particles sink; the lighter silt floats and gets skimmed off. But no system is perfect. Inevitably, some of the metals get flushed out with harmless sand and go into a tailings pond.
The tailings pond is supposed to protect the environment from toxic wastes. Some tailings ponds work; this one failed. Some 15 million cubic metres of waste flushed down Hazeltine Creek—enough, the media claim, to fill 2,000 Olympic swimming pools.
Last year, according to company reports, the mine discharged about 400 tonnes of arsenic into its tailings pond, along with 326 tonnes of nickel, 177 of lead, 138 of cobalt, and lesser amounts of copper, selenium, antimony, cadmium and mercury.
Little wonder that local residents were warned not to drink, swim in, or even to touch the water.
Most water restrictions were soon eased.
Because nature immediately began its healing process. Flowing water sorted the sludge. Heavy metals sank, where they could be covered over and sealed off by lighter silt settling on top. Existing streams and lakes diluted the dissolved chemicals, reducing their impact on plants and fish. Algae began gobbling minerals they’d barely met before, processing them into organically safer products.
As former minister Bob Thompson keeps reminding me, this is the recurring pattern of life on Earth. Nature constantly heals itself. Nature responds to any disaster—landslide, earthquake, volcano, hurricane, tornado, flood, fire—by immediately starting to repair the damage.
It may take time. But new plants take root. Rains fall. Soil accumulates. Sun beams. New animals colonize the territory. Life begins again.
It’s almost as if nature—the Earth itself—had some kind of underlying purpose. To heal wounds. To restore abundant life.
Bob Thompson says it’s one reason why he believes in Jesus. While academics argue about who said what, and why, and to whom, one sure thing that can be said about Jesus of Nazareth is that He healed. He never made afflictions worse. He never punished anyone with blindness, leprosy, the ebola virus, or Alzheimer’s disease.
In that, He embodied (or incarnated, the traditional term) the healing spirit of the Earth.
You may say that such a theology borders on pantheism. It treats the planet as a living being with intent, volition.
Well, why not? Why are we so committed to thinking of the Earth as nothing more than an accumulation of inanimate elements, acted on by the laws of physics but never itself allowed to act?
Are we afraid that a healing Earth might make God less almighty?
That the Earth heals seems to me beyond argument. So we have a choice. Either the Earth acts on its own to heal, and heal again. Or it acts in response to some external force whose essence is also healing.
Either way, you have to think of the Earth differently.