Red Chris Mine tailings pond by Garth Lenz

Oversights and overstatements: where B.C.’s mine waste audit fell short

Despite the province’s world-class claims, the safety of mine tailings storage is not up to international standards

There is a golden rule when it comes to tailings ponds: if you can’t build it safely, don’t do it, says Steven Emerman, the author of a new report on B.C.’s mine waste regulations. It’s a rule that Emerman says B.C. is continuing to break. 

The report, Bridging the Gap: Towards Best International Standards on Mine Waste Safety in B.C., looks at the province’s first internal audit of regulations for tailings storage facilities, released in April 2021. It concludes that, despite the province’s world-class claims, its legislation is not yet up to par with international standards on mine waste storage safety. 

“The audit’s overall conclusion that current B.C. requirements are ‘in alignment with industry best practice’ is not accurate,” according to the report.

This, despite the province’s experience with the Mount Polley disaster in 2014, when a tailings dam collapse sent 24-billion litres of mine waste flooding into the Quesnel Lake watershed. 

“It was a recommendation of the Mount Polley report — safety had to be the guiding principle …  project safety cannot be balanced against other project benefits,” Emerman, a consultant who specializes in evaluating the environmental impacts of mining, tells The Narwhal. Adding to the concern is catastrophic weather events in the province, he says.

Mount Polley Mine's tailings pond
Mount Polley mine’s tailings pond and pile. Production was ramped up at the mine before a tailings pond breached in 2014, causing one of B.C.’s worst environmental disasters. Photo: Louis Bockner / The Narwhal

Ugo Lapointe, B.C. Mining Law Reform Network co-chair and co-lead with MiningWatch Canada, says the report, published by the two organizations, underlines deficiencies in B.C.’s laws.

“The reality is that we still have out-of-date laws that will not adequately protect communities or the environment from mine waste disasters like we saw with the Mount Polley dam breach,” he says.

Emerman, a former associate professor at Utah Valley University who has led international projects evaluating mine risks and given presentations on mine safety assessments to the European Parliament and the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, found the audit was lacking in scope and had significant limitations.

Climate change and extreme weather events not factored into B.C. mining regulations

In addition to highlighting omissions from the audit, the report makes specific recommendations for revisions to B.C.’s mining legislation, including mandating technologies that will reduce or eliminate wet tailings and banning upstream dams. 

B.C.’s regulations contain gaps that could put lives at risk, Emerman writes in the report, which was produced by the B.C. Mining Law Reform Network and MiningWatch Canada.

For example, the province does not require all tailings dams to be built to withstand the most extreme flooding and earthquake events.

“With climate change resulting in more extreme weather and atypical weather events, such requirements are more important than ever,” the report says.

The government should get the most up-to-date predictions on 100-year, 1,000-year and 5,000-year floods and incorporate that information into decisions, Emerman says.

Nikki Skuce, co-chair of the B.C. Mining Law Reform network and a director of Northern Confluence Initiative, agreed it is essential that B.C. brings in legislation to ensure mines and waste dams are designed to withstand extreme weather.

“The province has seen floods, heat domes, wildfires and atypical weather events due to climate change,” she says.

The report also suggested requirements for accountability, transparency and public disclosure of mine waste risks be improved as the audit concluded that the Health, Safety and Reclamation Code does not currently meet best practices or international standards for transparency, Emerman writes.

Another point of concern Emerman notes is that companies are not obeying the existing rules. The audit found that one in four tailings storage facilities were not in compliance with basic mine waste safety requirements.

“It raises serious concerns about the safety of mine waste facilities in British Columbia,” Emerman says.

Significant gaps found in B.C. mine waste regulations audit

The provincial audit did not look at the need to gain Indigenous and community consent before building, expanding or closing mine waste facilities, which should be required in line with the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples Act, the report says.

The audit also omitted to look at risks associated with building mine waste dams near communities. Specifically, B.C regulations don’t prohibit mine waste dams immediately upstream from communities and sensitive ecosystems, according to the report.

“That is where B.C. regulations are furthest behind the times. I would say that nothing in B.C. legislation makes it impossible to build a tailings dam immediately upslope from a large city,” Emerman says.

“That almost happened with the Ajax mine, that was supposed to be right above the city of Kamloops on a steep slope. How was it that could even be considered?” he asked.

Mount Polley mine Hazeltine Creek remediation
Upturned trees, placed in the ground in an effort to provide perches for birds of prey as part of remediation work at the mouth of Hazeltine Creek, impacted by the Mount Polley mine spill. Photo: Louis Bockner / The Narwhal

The federal and provincial governments rejected plans for the open pit copper and gold mine in 2018, after it was fiercely opposed by many Kamloops residents and the Stk’emlupsemc Te Secwepemc Nation.

The report noted another area that is opening the province up to risk is B.C.’s failure to require full financial assurances for mine site closures and post-closure costs, in addition to full financial insurance for accidental damages.

As was the case with Mount Polley, taxpayers are left holding the bill for mine cleanups in B.C. because the province does not demand adequate bonding from companies to cover the cost of reclamation or ensure there are hefty penalties for breaking the rules.

‘We’re still dealing with the difference between promise and practice’

In an emailed response to questions from The Narwhal, the Ministry of Energy, Mines and Low Carbon Initiative said safety is the top priority at all mine sites in B.C. and the ministry “is committed to maintaining world leading regulations and implementing robust oversight of all regulated mining practices, including those related to tailings storage facilities.”

The ministry has accepted all seven recommendations made in the audit and has committed to concrete actions to address them, the ministry statement says.

Enforcement provisions are being modernized and the mining code review committee, a 12-person group with representatives from First Nations, industry and labour, has formed a sub-committee to address the audit’s recommendations, according to the statement.

Alan Young, director of the Materials Efficiency Research Group, consultants on sustainable resource extraction, says the audit was an unprecedented step forward, “but we’re still dealing with the difference between promise and practice.”

The audit revealed significant gaps in B.C.’s ability to deliver tailings dam safety, but it did raise the right questions, says Young, who is also a member of the B.C. Mining Jobs Task Force under the provincial government.

“So, it’s kind of a good news/bad news story. The good news is that we are asking the right questions. The bad news is the answers are that we still need to do more work,” Young says. “What has to happen is the audit needs to generate the necessary changes in the bureaucracy to deliver on a safety first agenda.”

Young says B.C. is not alone in falling behind on best practices.

“The concept of best practices and tailings is a bit of a holy grail and we’re seeing a lot of theoretical best practices, but we’re not seeing a lot of practical best practices,” he says. “It’s a challenge B.C. shares with every other mining jurisdiction on the planet.” 

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We hear it time and time again:
“These are the stories that need to be told and you are some of the only ones telling them,” John, a new member of The Narwhal, wrote in to say.

Investigating stories others aren’t. Diving deep to find solutions to the climate crisis. Sending journalists to report from remote locations for days and sometimes weeks on end. These are the core tenets of what we do here at The Narwhal. It’s also the kind of work that takes time and resources to pull off.

That might sound obvious, but it’s far from reality in many shrinking and cash-strapped Canadian newsrooms. So what’s The Narwhal’s secret sauce? Thousands of members like John who support our non-profit, ad-free journalism by giving whatever they can afford each month (or year).

But here’s the thing: just two per cent of The Narwhal’s readers step up to keep our stories free for all to read. Will you join the two per cent and become a member of The Narwhal today?

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