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Thursday marks two years since the Mount Polley mine disaster in Likely, B.C. where a tailings pond collapse spilled 25 million cubic metres of mining waste, laced with contaminants like arsenic, lead and copper, into the once-pristine Quesnel Lake, a major salmon spawning ground and source of drinking water.
To mark the occasion, B.C. Minister of Energy and Mines Bill Bennett issued a press release praising the government’s world-class mining standards, saying the province is now “at the forefront of global standards for the safety of [tailings storage facilities] at mines operating in this province.”
“We’ve taken a leadership position and have done all we can to ensure such a failure can never happen in B.C. again,” Bennett said.
But experts and victims of the spill say the province has all but ignored the impacts of the spill, which to this day remains the largest mining disaster in Canadian history.
And rather than taking a precautionary approach to mining in the province, the government is doing everything it can to put British Columbians and Alaskans at risk of another Mount-Polley style disaster, according to Robyn Allan, economist and risk analysis expert.
“All the discussion about world-class and changes that are going to avoid these problems in the future is nothing more than rhetoric,” Allan told DeSmog Canada.
“It’s shocking to me that a disaster of this nature could take place and our regulatory bodies spend more time covering up what’s going on than ensuring a proper cleanup and remediation.”
Allan said government and industry have discussed small changes to mining rules but more is required to ensure British Columbians are protected from another Mount Polley.
“There is very good evidence that says we can expect two of these every decade,” Allan said, adding a recent investigation by B.C. Auditor General Carol Bellringer found serious, chronic and unresolved problems with mining regulations.
“Even under these facts the provincial government is doing nothing to ensure this doesn’t happen again,” Allan said.
“We’re in a situation where we’ve seen what can happen and what will happen and nothing meaningful is being done to stop it but all the government rhetoric that is being used is providing a false sense of security for the public.”
“It’s not getting better. It’s worse than it’s ever been,” Allan said.
Jacinda Mack, member of the Xat’sull First Nation and coordinator of the First Nations Women Advocating Responsible Mining, echoes Allan’s sentiments.
“Right from the beginning Minister Bennett has tried to sweep this under the rug and minimize it,” Mack told DeSmog Canada.
“The province says they have the best [tailings pond] regulations in the world when really all they’ve done is come up to a minimum standard of where they should have been years ago.”
Mack said B.C., compared to other jurisdictions around the world, is way behind on mining regulations. For example, she said since Mount Polley there is now a requirement that a qualified person be responsible for managing tailings facilities.
“I would have assumed a qualified person was in charge of those dams,” Mack said.
“If meeting only the basic minimum requirements means they’re world class, that really shows how bad the situation is in B.C.”
Mack said she didn’t want the two-year anniversary of the Mount Polley disaster to pass marked by only a positive government press release.
“The rosy picture the province and mining industry have been painting, it’s really not the situation in the communities and we want to speak truth to power.”
In the wake of the Mount Polley disaster, the government was quick to assure British Columbians that Imperial Metals, owner and operator of the Mount Polley mine, would take responsibility for the cost of clean up.
The ministries of environment and mines assured the province “cost of the clean up of the breach is the responsibility of Imperial Metals, and is not a cost borne by B.C. taxpayers.”
This past June the province reiterated the claim that a robust a polluter-pays system is in place for mines: “The Environmental Management Act ensures that those that pollute are held responsible under a polluter pay principle so the taxpayer does not have to assume these clean up costs.”
But that talking point just doesn’t hold water, according to Allan, who recently reported in an op-ed in the Vancouver Sun that an Imperial Metals shareholder report shows B.C. taxpayers subsidized Mount Polley clean up to the tune of $23.6 million.
“On top of everything else we’re being misled about the polluter pay system that doesn’t exist,” Allan said.
“To layer onto an incredibly dangerous situation deliberate misinformation is reprehensible.”
Richard Holmes, fisheries biologist and resident of Likely, B.C. said despite what the government says in press releases, the clean up and response to the spill has been disappointing.
“I thought we would have been a lot further ahead of where we are by now.”
Part of the frustration of local residents, who live with the knowledge that the millions of cubic metres of spilled mining waste remains in Quesnel Lake, is the difficulty of dealing with a company that is first and foremost concerned about the bottom line, Holmes said.
“These companies don’t carry enough money to respond to these disasters,” he said. “And Imperial Metals is getting a ride on this whole breach because of the government.”
Holmes said despite the damage to the lives of local residents and business owners — some of who are pursuing litigation against the company — neither Imperial Metals nor the government have taken responsibility.
“There is no ownership of this disaster. Neither of them will say sorry,” he said. “That’s something that would go a long way to easing relationships in the community.”
“But with them it’s always the same: deny, deflect, defend.”
Holmes said despite multiple government reports and investigations no one has laid any blame or assigned responsibility. Yet, he said, there has been plenty of finger-pointing.
“Now Imperial Metals is suing the two engineering firms it contracted to manage the tailings pond. That suggests to me that the Mount Polley legal team recognizes now they may be in a little trouble so they’re trying to put the blame somewhere else.”
Christine McLean, member of Concerned Citizens of Quesnel Lake, said trying to hold the government accountable has been a “daunting task.”
No compensation has been paid out to local property owners like McLean or to affected businesses that have suffered a decline in customers since the spill.
“We’re really disappointed in how the government and the mine have moved forward,” McLean said, adding this summer the province granted Mount Polley a waste discharge permit that allows the company to resume full operations and release more mining waste into Quesnel Lake.
“As concerned citizens it’s bad enough that all that waste went into the lake,” McLean said. “Now it’s made so much worse by the fact that the government has given the mine the rubber stamp to directly dump their waste into the lake.”
“I don’t feel like anyone in our province is working for us,” she added. “They are working for the mine to make it as easy as possible to resume operations.”
McLean, who sits on the mine’s public liaison committee said she fears the discharge permits will create a new normal, where the lake is used as a perpetual dumping ground.
“These permits are like taxes: once they’re in they’re hard to get out.”
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