The ramshackle regulatory system governing B.C.’s mining industry is profoundly dysfunctional and the public has lost confidence in the province’s ability to protect the environment and communities from poor mining activities, says a new report from the University of Victoria’s Environmental Law Centre.
The wide-ranging report, released Wednesday, was commissioned for the Fair Mining Collaborative — a non-profit group that helps First Nations communities assess mining activities — and recommends that the provincial government establish a Commission of Public Inquiry to investigate B.C.’s regulation of the mining industry.
A judicial inquiry is needed because mining is a multi-billion dollar industry that can create jobs and great wealth, but can also create “catastrophic and long-lasting threats to entire watersheds and to critical public assets such as fish, clean water, wildlife and public health,” according to the report, which is signed by ELC legal director Calvin Sandborn and law student Kirsty Broadhead.
The Mount Polley tailings dam disaster, plus the toxic aftermath at old mines such as Sunro at Jordan River and the Tulsequah Chief in northeast B.C., where reclamation and cleanup regulations were not enforced, have created a profound crisis in public confidence, it says.
The mine at Jordan River operated from 1950 to 1974 and is suspected of wiping out salmon runs. The site was never adequately remediated and pollution can still be seen seeping into the Jordan River.
The Tulsequah Chief has been leaking acid mine drainage into a tributary of Alaska’s salmon-rich Taku River for 60 years and, although Energy and Mines Minister Bill Bennett has promised action and said the leakage is not harming fish, it is a constant source of worry and frustration for Alaskans.
With those types of examples, it is not surprising that public confidence is at a low ebb and a full-scale public inquiry could help set minds at ease, the ELC concludes.
“In the past, public inquiries have been established when the public had lost confidence in the regulation of an important B.C. industry — and those public inquiries have helped to improve regulatory systems and restore public confidence,” says the report, submitted Wednesday to Premier Christy Clark and cabinet.
The ELC is not the only organization to document problems with B.C.’s mining regulatory regime.
Auditor General Carol Bellringer issued a stinging audit of enforcement of mining industry regulations last year and concluded that government’s enforcement efforts were inadequate.
“Almost all of our expectations for a robust compliance and enforcement program were not met,” Bellringer said in her audit.
Although the government has acted on some of Bellringer’s recommendations, it has ignored the central recommendation that enforcement should be moved to an independent agency. The audit concluded that the Ministry of Energy and Mines is in a conflict of interest because it promotes mining at the same time as regulating the industry.
The ELC report points out that government has also failed to address the most important recommendation from the Mount Polley Expert Panel, which was to eliminate tailings lakes that, the Panel concluded, pose an unacceptable danger to B.C.’s environment.
“The rules on tailings facilities — and many other mining rules — remain archaic and ineffective,” the report says.
However, Sandborn remains optimistic that the government will establish a public inquiry
“I believe in facts, not alternative facts, and these facts speak for themselves,” he said.
The Energy and Mines Ministry did not return emailed questions from DeSmog Canada.
NDP leader John Horgan said in an interview that, although he is not prepared to commit to a public inquiry before seeing the ELC report, regaining public confidence in mining oversight will be near the top of his agenda if an NDP government is elected in May.
“I am going to look at this area with more intensity than others might because I was the critic for a decade and I know these issues and the players pretty well,” said Horgan who emphasized that he wants to see a robust mining industry in B.C., but that requires public confidence and social licence.
Enforcement, rather than regulation, is the biggest problem and an NDP government would separate promotion of the industry from enforcement, as recommended by the Auditor General, Horgan said.
Government’s decision to allow companies to use their own professionals, rather than government employees, to assess situations, also came under fire by Horgan.
“The move to professional reliance, rather than having independent public servants protecting and enforcing regulations, is the biggest failing of the BC Liberals,” he said.
“The public interest is always protected when you have independent public servants discharging their responsibility on behalf of all British Columbians, not just those that are promoting an economic activity.”
Public confidence and public trust was eroded following the Mount Polley disaster and government’s inaction has made the situation worse, Horgan said.
“We are three years on and there have been no consequences for anybody,” he said.
In addition to the environmental threats, the ELC report urges government to look at economic threats presented by a badly regulated industry and taxpayer liability, which is climbing because government is not demanding bonds that fully cover the cost of mine clean-ups.
Bellringer warned that unfunded taxpayer liability for mine clean-ups now exceeds $1.2 billion and other experts estimate liability at more than $3-billion.
“While some jurisdictions ban any mine that would require long-term water treatment B.C. doesn’t just allow such high-risk mines, B.C. routinely allows them to operate without full security — there’s a $730-million shortfall for these high risk operations alone,” says the report.
“By setting securities at artificially low levels, government has encouraged companies to not spend realistic amounts on environmental protection measures. Higher securities would lead to better mining practices,” it says.
Questions that the report recommends should be addressed by a public inquiry include:
*Do current standards for tailings storage facilities fall short of recommendations by the Mount Polley Expert Panel?
*Do B.C’s mining rules meet global standards for public safety and environmental protection?
*Are environmental assessment requirements adequate?
*Is enforcement of mining laws adequate?
*Should government remove enforcement of mining laws from the Ministry of Energy and Mines?
*Are closed mines being adequately monitored and reclaimed?
*Are mining companies cleaning up their own mess?
*How can the province ensure that mining companies, not taxpayers, pay to reclaim mines?
*Is placer mining being adequately regulated?
*Should the free entry mineral tenure system be reformed to protect private landowners, First Nations and the environment?
The call for a public inquiry is being supported by many First Nations and community groups.
Ugo Lapointe, Canada program coordinator for Mining Watch Canada, in a letter of support, said “B.C.’s mining regulatory regime remains, in fact, one of the most problematic — if not the worst — in Canada when it comes to protecting the environment, communities, indigenous peoples and taxpayers.”
B.C. ranks worst in Canada for unsecured environmental liability of contaminated mine site clean-up costs and is the only large jurisdiction that has not modernized its mineral tenure system, Lapointe wrote.
The Mount Polley disaster was the worst mining spill in Canada’s history and can be attributed not only to poor technical and corporate practices, but also to poor regulatory oversight, Lapointe said.
And, with mining companies regularly showing up as generous donors to the B.C. Liberals, there is a fear of undue influence.
“B.C.’s system is subject to severe regulatory capture by the industry, a situation exacerbated by the fact that B.C. remains the only large province in Canada where there are no limits on political donations from corporate interests,” Lapointe wrote.
A letter from Bev Sellars, chair of First Nation Women Advocating Responsible Mining, says many of the group’s members have learned how promises of riches can turn into destroyed lands and limited low-paying jobs.
“It’s past time for B.C. to objectively and fully evaluate their outdated and biased mining laws and policies. We will accept nothing less,” Sellars wrote.
Image: Christy Clark at Copper Mountain mine. Photo: Province of B.C. via Flickr