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Understaffing, deregulation to blame for Imperial Metals' Mount Polley tailings pond disaster: critics

Screen cap from video of Mount Polley tailings pond breach by Cariboo Regional District

Deregulation and staffing cutbacks to BC government regulators may be to blame to Imperial Metals' Mount Polley tailings pond disaster, which dumped five million cubic metres of toxic waste near the Quesnel and Cariboo Rivers.

“The government isn't inspecting the mines, and the mining companies know it,” said Glenda Ferris, a longtime advocate for environmentally safe mining in British Columbia who has previously consulted with government and First Nations on mining issues. A landowner near Houston, BC,  she lives beside the now-closed Equity Silver mine, which dumped acid-generating tailings waste into the environment in 1982.

Ferris said the BC government has relied excessively on the mining industry to self-regulate itself as ministries underwent budget cuts in the 1990s, meaning that the problem could be systemic.

"The whole deregulation thing in the 90s was about government saying: 'We require the mines to do all the work'. So all the mining companies will hire people like (private engineering management firm) AMEC. [AMEC consultants] go out and do the annual report from equity mine, and the government will say that suffices. And industry wants to do it as cheaply as possible." According to a 2011 report, AMEC did one dam safety report in 2006, but the company did not say what other inspections were done, and allegedly had no monitoring or contingency plan. 

While the BC Ministry of Environment said it had issued five warnings to Imperial Metals recently, questions linger about why compliance was not enforced. 

"You know, it's all about money,"  Xat'sull (Soda Creek) First Nation Chief Bev Sellars told the Vancouver Observer. She said the provincial government appeared to have let companies go on many violations and breaches in recent years. "The bottom line is, how much money can the mines make? How much money can they donate to political parties?" 

Imperial Metals has contributed $167,550 to both the BC Liberals and the NDP since 2005 (mostly to the BC Liberals), according to Elections BC records (click here for contribution list). 

Lack of staff to enforce mining regulations?

Ferris, as well as other sources who wished to remain unnamed, argued that BC’s mining industry has had poor compliance and too little staff to enforce regulations around 1997, when Imperial Metals first opened Mount Polley mine. The Ministry of Water, Land and Air Protection (MWLAP), for instance, suffered 40 per cent staff cutbacks during that time, which led to compromised capability to employ technicians to survey areas like mining sites.

A July 2011 BC Auditor General report found that for projects like dams and mines, "adequate monitoring is not occurring and follow-up evaluations are not being conducted." It added that "information currently being provided to the public is not sufficient to ensure accountability."

The structural safety of tailings ponds like the one at Mount Polley require engineers to inspect the site. Ferris claims the BC government now has a  small handful of qualified full-time staff in Victoria “who are supposed to take care of the entire province, including currently open and closed mines,” and that the ministry must otherwise rely on industry contractors to report to the ministry’s regional offices. Although the Ministry's response is pending, the staff directory seems to suggest the number of geotechnical inspectors and tailings ponds experts is lacking for the province as a whole. 

'Ad hoc' enforcement

Over a decade before the Mount Polley mine tailings pond breach, West Coast Environmental Law had released a study pointing out underfunding and lack of mechanisms to enforce compliance in BC's mining industry. 

"Our review uncovered a wide range of problems in enforcement and compliance," said the report Undermining the Law: Addressing the Crisis in Compliance with Environmental Mining Laws in BC (2001). "Central to  these problems is the lack of any coherent approach to enforcement. The BC government has acknowledged that its own enforcement programs are 'ad hoc.' It recognizes that enforcement activities are often reactive and complaint driven."

The report points out that budgets for environmental regulation were slashed heavily in the late 90s, when the Mount Polley mine was first approved. While Ministry of Environment, Lands and Parks had $263 million to work with in 1995, by 2000, that budget had plummeted to $188 million. The report expressed alarm that the number of annual mining inspections had steadily decreased between 1991 to 1999, and that the Ministry of Energy and Mines only had 28 inspectors across BC in 2001. The Vancouver Observer has asked the Ministry how many inspectors are currently employed, and a response is pending.

The report said that at regional level, it meant training programs were reduced, and that "staffing levels are reduced and key personnel are not always available for enforcement purposes." 

The report also noted there was little cost for mines that violated environmental regulations. Lawbreakers, the report states, were ticketed around $500 to $10,000 - a small cost for large mining companies. When Imperial Metals' Huckleberry mine was found with a number of serious violations in previous years, it was fined $2,000.

Saving Mount Polley mine

Mount Polley was at one point at risk of closing during the late 1990s, due to low commodity prices. But the BC government stepped in via the Job Protection Commission in 1998, which helped keep Mount Polley and several other mines open by conducting studies and designing "an economic plan to allow the mine to continue operating." The move was said to have saved over 200 jobs at the time. 

NDP MLA Mike Farnworth, who was employment and investment minister at the time, said he believes no environmental regulations were relaxed in order to keep Mount Polley open, however. "I believe the changes were more on the financial side," he said. The government had proposed to make some changes to regulations and tax policies to help some mines stay in business during a time of plunging copper prices and a recession in Asia. 

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