A hard-hitting report by B.C.’s auditor general that concludes the government’s mines monitoring and inspection program is woefully inadequate and does not protect the province from significant environmental risks, is increasing alarm in Southeast Alaska about B.C.’s mining practices.
The report, delivered this week by Carol Bellringer, is also sparking renewed calls for transboundary mine development to be referred to the International Joint Commission — an independent body designed to resolve disputes over the use and quality of boundary waters — and raising questions about a cooperation agreement under negotiation between B.C. and Alaska.
On the B.C. side of the border there has been a rush of mine development close to the headwaters of the Taku, Stikine and Unuk rivers, Southeast Alaska’s major salmon rivers, with one mine already in operation and about nine others in various stages of permitting and exploration.
“We do feel this report further validates what we’ve been saying all along, including that our concerns about financial guarantees, monitoring in perpetuity and cumulative effects need to be addressed by an independent joint U.S./Canada body,” said Heather Hardcastle of Salmon Beyond Borders.
A Salmon Beyond Borders news release adds that B.C. is systemically unable and unwilling to address the risks mining poses to downstream resources.
“The ongoing pollution at the Tulsequah Chief mine in the Taku watershed, the opening of Imperial Metals’ Red Chris mine in the Stikine watershed months after (Imperial’s) Mount Polley mine disaster and the approval of North America’s largest open-pit mine, Kerr-Sulphurets-Mitchell (KSM) in the Unuk watershed, 19 miles upstream from the border, are more than enough justification for Alaskans to demand immediate federal action,” says the release.
"Decade of Neglect"
Bellringer, who conducted a two-year investigation, found major gaps in planning, resources and tools and that compliance and enforcement program expectations in the Ministry of Energy and Mines and Ministry of Environment were not met after a “decade of neglect.”
Her major recommendation is for B.C. to create an independent agency to manage enforcement and compliance, a suggestion that has not been embraced by government.
Bellringer said that, to reduce the risk of “unfortunate and preventable incidents like Mount Polley,”compliance and enforcement should be separated from the Energy and Mines Ministry because the ministry’s role to promote mining development is diametrically opposed to compliance and enforcement.
“This framework of having both activities within MEM creates an irreconcilable conflict,” she said.
“Because compliance and enforcement is the last line of defence against environmental degradation, business as usual cannot continue,” said Bellringer, who added she is disappointed in government’s resistance to the recommendation.
Government has not ruled out the suggestion, but indicated it was likely unnecessary and instead has offered to establish a mining compliance and enforcement board to ensure greater integration between ministries.
During Bellringer’s audit the topic of mines oversight took on greater urgency because of the failure of the Mount Polley tailings dam.
“These risks became a reality and disaster occurred when the tailings dam at Mount Polley failed — releasing approximately 25 million cubic metres of wastewater and tailings into adjacent water systems and lakes. It may be many years before the financial, environmental and social implications are fully known,” she wrote.
In another criticism — that has long been a sore point for B.C.’s Alaskan neighbours — Bellringer said mining companies have not provided adequate financial security deposits to cover reclamation costs if a company is unable to pay.
The True Cost of Mining
The fund is more than $1-billion short — meaning taxpayers could be left picking up the bills, especially as “major mines . . . will likely require long-term or perpetual water treatment.”
Chris Zimmer, Alaska campaign director for Rivers Without Borders, said it is apparent the B.C. system does not cover the true costs of mining.
“That’s why we need U.S. federal engagement to develop enforceable standards and protections that minimize risks to Alaska’s water, fish and jobs and provide compensation for any harm Alaskans suffer from B.C. mining,” Zimmer said.
The Mount Polley disaster was a wakeup call for Alaskans and the audit confirms their concerns are valid, said Zimmer, who is urging the Alaskan government not to sign the final Statement of Cooperation with B.C. until problems identified in the audit are fixed.
“The Auditor General notes the critical need for enforcement given the scale of mining in B.C. and the potential for long-term negative effects on water and salmon, but also finds the environmental risks of mining are increasing, while compliance and enforcement are decreasing,” Zimmer said.
“How can we have any trust in the B.C. processes?”