Widespread criticism of B.C.’s mining rules is undeserved according to Energy and Mines Minister Bill Bennett, who has turned down a recommendation from the University of Victoria’s Environmental Law Centre for a judicial inquiry into mining regulation.
“Given the significant changes this government has made to how mining is undertaken and overseen in British Columbia, including changes to law and policy, additional resources to improve permitting processes and significantly strengthened compliance and enforcement, Government categorically disagrees that a Commission of Public Enquiry (sic) into the Province’s mining industry serves the taxpayers of B.C. Such a process would be demonstrably redundant,” Bennett wrote in a letter to the ELC.
The response has exasperated Calvin Sandborn, ELC legal director, who said the rejection is likely to cost B.C. taxpayers dearly because of immense costs of mine reclamation where environmental damage has been caused by poor government oversight and minimal enforcement of the polluter-pay principle.
“You can pay for an awful lot of public inquiries if you avoid just one disaster,” said Sandborn, who points to how previous public inquiries have improved regulatory systems and helped restore public confidence.
An ELC report, commissioned by the Fair Mining Collaborative, said the 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 practices.
A Commission of Public Inquiry is needed because mining is an industry that can create “catastrophic and long-lasting threats to entire watersheds and to critical public assets such as fish, clean water, wildlife and public health,” says the report.
In the aftermath of the Mount Polley tailings dam collapse, the spotlight has been on B.C.’s mining regulations and enforcement, drawing highly critical analyses from Auditor General Carol Bellringer, Alaskan politicians and environmental groups, First Nations, Canadian not-for-profit groups such as Mining Watch Canada and communities worried about the safety of tailings ponds in their region.
In addition to the Mount Polley disaster, that saw 25-million cubic metres of sludge and toxic waste water surge into nearby lakes and rivers, public confidence has been shaken by the toxic legacy of old mines, such as Tulsequah Chief, which has leached acid mine waste into Alaska watersheds for six decades and the Sunro Mine at Jordan River where reclamation and cleanup efforts were not enforced.
Simultaneously, there is increasing public discomfort with proof that taxpayers are likely to be on the hook for more than a billion dollars in mine clean-ups because of historical problems and B.C.’s lack of financial enforcement, including the practice of allowing the Chief Inspector of Mines to unilaterally set the amount of reclamation bonds and then not demanding the full amount be paid up-front.
Unlike neighbouring Alaska, B.C. will also accept guarantees, rather than demanding cash or bonds.
Independent economist Robyn Allan, in a brief presented to an Alaska State Legislature committee, underlined the difference in bonds paid by mining giant Teck Resources Ltd. in B.C. and Alaska.
Teck has posted a bond of $558-million with Alaska to fully cover reclamation costs at the Red Dog Mine, which is expected to require water treatment in perpetuity.
In contrast, just across the B.C. border, Teck is responsible for 13 mines — six operating and seven closed — and the province has estimated reclamation liability at $1.4-billion, but has required only $510-million in bonding, Allan wrote in her brief.
Teck is the largest donor to the B.C. Liberals contributing $1,502,444 to the party since 2008.
However, Bennett, in his letter to the ELC, said that, following the release of the Auditor General’s report last May, government commissioned Ernst and Young to undertake an in-depth examination of reclamation securities practice.
“Ernst and Young found that (the Ministry of Energy and Mines) has established a carefully-considered and systematic financial security approach for mine reclamation that includes elements of a risk-based approach,” he wrote.
The review suggests ways of moving forward and an amended “reclamation securities approach” will be completed in 2018, according to Bennett, who is not running for re-election in May.
Bennett wrote in the letter that government has accepted all recommendations of the Expert Panel that looked into the Mount Polley disaster and recommendations made by the Auditor General.
“As our submission demonstrated, government has clearly failed to implement the prime recommendations of both the panel and the Auditor General — to move towards elimination of water impoundments and to get the Ministry of Energy and Mines out of the enforcement business,” he said.
Sandborn also dismissed Bennett’s claims that B.C.’s mining regulations are equal to, or more stringent than Montana or Alaska.
“This is demonstrably inaccurate,” he said.
“Alaska requires mine securities of 100 per cent of reclamation costs, while B.C. allows companies to fall far short of that figure. Teck Resources alone has been allowed to fall more than $700-million short in B.C.”
Bennett’s response is similar to his denials after the Mount Polley breach that there had been significant cuts in regulatory staff, Sandborn said,
“The Auditor General’s report showed that we were right and the minister was wrong about that,” he said.
Image: Energy and Mines Minister Bill Bennett. Photo: Province of B.C. via Flickr