Aug 20, 2014

Mount Polley Mine dam collapse compels us to review resource development regulations


At this point, we don’t know exactly what caused the collapse in the large dam holding mining wastewater and contaminated sediment – also known as tailings – at the Mount Polley Mine. This is why we need the inquiry which the BC government announced earlier this week. It remains to be seen if it was weak mining regulations, a failure of monitoring and enforcement of the existing regulations or a combination of both that contributed to the massive breach.

We do know for a fact that several waves of weakening regulations and cuts to budgets and staffing in the civil service  have undermined both provincial and federal government’s capacity to protect our environment, and the health and safety of our communities.

My own research published by CCPA last year has documented deep cuts to the BC public service, including in the Ministries responsible for overseeing resource development and providing stewardship over our publicly owned natural resource. These cuts have compromised government’s ability to protect our environment, responsibly steward our natural resources and generally do its job well.

In BC, the push for weakening environmental protection regulation around mining and other resource development came in the early 2000s, when the government of Gordon Campbell created a Ministry of Deregulation tasked with reducing regulations by one third. This simplistic goal implied regulations were simply needless paperwork to make life difficult for businesses rather than a legal mechanism to protect the public interest.

Changes in BC’s environmental protections regulation included shifting responsibility for review of proposed new resource projects between the Ministry of Environment and the Ministries responsible for resource development, laying off public service officers responsible for monitoring and enforcement of regulations, and increasing reliance on resource operators (i.e. mining and logging companies) to inspect themselves by hiring outside experts. The CCPA raised concerns about this at the time here, here and here.

My colleague Ben Parfitt examined in great detail the significant cuts to budgets and staffing in the BC Forest Service in a report released in December 2010, concluding that our ability to oversee and responsibly manage BC’s forest lands “has become hopelessly compromised” in Axed: A Decade of Cuts to BC’s Forest Service. Just over a year later the BC Auditor General came to very similar conclusions, finding that the Ministry of Forests lacked the capacity to ensure sustainable forest management.

Potential abuses in forestry like illegal logging or unpaid provincial stumpage fees are less likely to make headlines than a mining wastewater spill, but logging operations can be just as environmentally destructive if regulations are not enforced.

The Mount Polley Mine dam collapse is where things went wrong this time, but there is strong evidence that deregulation is opening the door to a range of potential abuses, increasing the risk of similar disasters and incidents.

We’re lucky that nobody got injured. We’re lucky that the water in Quesnel lake and the other water bodies impacted is not toxic to people, though it remains to be seen if it would pose problems for fisheries. But we can’t count on luck to pull us through incidents like this. The reality is that without robust regulations and sufficient resources to monitor and enforce them, we simply cannot protect our environment nor can we responsibly steward our natural resources.

This is not just a problem for mining and forestry. Earlier this year, a BC Ombudsperson investigation found shortfalls in environmental protection for areas around lakes and streams essential to the health of fish (known as riparian areas) stemming from reduced government capacity to monitor compliance and increased reliance on the judgement of outside experts (known as a “professional reliance model”).

Resource development must balance the financial interest of the resource companies with the public interest. It is the job of the BC government to strike a balance between private cost considerations and the risks to local communities, fisheries and the environment. It appears the pendulum has swung too far, putting too much control at the hands of industry.

A number of groups have put forward concrete, evidence-based recommendations for stricter mining regulation, including the University of Victoria Environmental Law Centre (most recently Ch. 4, 5, 6 here), West Coast Environmental Law, the Fair Mining Collaborative and Ecojustice.

Some of the key reforms they have identified include stricter environmental safety standards, better monitoring and enforcement of these standards, and a new requirement for mining companies to pay into a fund that can cover the costs of cleanup and compensation of victims should an incident occur, rather than leaving the bill with BC’s taxpayers.

The Mount Polley dam collapse is the largest mining wastewater and contaminated sediment spill on record in BC, but it’s not the first one. Stephen Hume provides a useful overview of similar accident worldwide in a recent Vancouver Sun article.

Calvin Sandborn and Maya Stano of the UVic Environmental Law Centre list other environmental problems created by mining in a 2011 article in the Victoria Times Colonist, many of which came with large cleanup costs for taxpayers. These include a $69 million tab to clean up the Britannia mine by Squamish and $436 million to clean up the Faro Mine in the Yukon.

The Mount Polley Mine dam collapse compels us to review not just mining but all resource development regulations to ensure we are protecting the public interest. As a minimum, we must increase budgets and staffing levels in all ministries responsible for resource stewardship and rebuild government’s capacity to monitor and enforce existing regulations.

At a time when the BC government’s economic plans are banking on mining expansion and resource development, it’s crucial to expand our capacity to effectively regulate the increases resource production.

If it costs more, then so be it. Healthy salmon fisheries, forests and clean water are worth it. After all, they too are resources of great economic importance and not just to First Nations and tourism operators, but to our entire province.

UPDATED Aug 22, 2014: Thanks to Gwen Barlee for pointing out Mount Polley Mine’s spill is not just wastewater but also contaminated sediment.

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