No charges will be laid against the Mount Polley Mine Corporation, owned by Imperial Metals, for the collapse of a tailings impoundment on August 4, 2014, that sent an estimated 24 million cubic metres of mining waste into the pristine waters of Quesnel Lake.
The incident, considered one of the worst mining disasters in Canadian history, was simply the result of “poor practices,” according to B.C. chief inspector of mines, Al Hoffman, and not due to “non-compliances.”
Hoffman released the results of a yearlong investigation into the tailing pond’s failure Thursday and did not recommend charges be brought against the mine or its parent company.
The Mount Polley mine was operating within existing regulation, Hoffman found, but failed to use best available practices. Hoffman made 19 recommendations to the B.C. government and the mining industry to prevent a similar event from occurring in the future. The recommendations include introducing a “designated mine dam safety manager” to monitor tailings facilities as well as improving records management and transparency around design, construction and operation of mining facilities.
B.C.’s Ministry of Mines currently has no rule in place for levying administrative penalties against mining operators. Upon release of the report, B.C. Minister of Energy and Mines Bill Bennett said he hopes to introduce new legislation this spring that will give his ministry the power to impose fines to encourage compliance.
Despite the promises for stronger mine management and future legislation, the current lack of consequences for the Mount Polley Mine Corporation and Imperial Metals has critics outraged.
“How can so many things be done so poorly, sloppily or haphazardly and result in massive damage without someone being ‘at fault?’” Ugo Lapoint, Canadian program manager with MiningWatch Canada, stated in a press release.
The catastrophic failure of the tailings impoundment, which sent contaminated waste into a major source of drinking water and spawning grounds for, at high times, up to 60 per cent of the province’s sockeye salmon stocks, was “not an ‘Act of God,’” Lapointe said.
“It was poor design, poor practices, poor oversight and misconducts on the part of Mount Polley Mine Corporation.”
“It makes no sense. Either there were political reasons for the chief inspector to not lay charges against [Mount Polley], or the regulatory system is even more broken then we all thought. Either way, it’s not reassuring for any of the mines currently operating in B.C.,” Lapointe added.
MiningWatch Canada found that although the chief inspector did not lay charges, he made numerous incriminating statements in his recent report.
“It does not add up,” Lapointe said.
Richard Holmes, environmental biologist and resident of Likely, B.C., where the spill took place, said the report is a damning indictment of the province’s regulatory system.
“I think this reflects the weak regulations we have in B.C.,” he said
He added the lack of charges against the company does not come as a surprise.
“I didn’t think the chief inspector of mines would condemn his own ministers too much,” he said.
Holmes said the disaster is the outcome of “a bad combination of weak regulations, no oversight and a company that was hell bent on walking a very fine line in doing what was right and making a profit.”
The province’s push for more mines is troubling given the Mount Polley incident reflects poorly on the government’s ability to manage resources and watersheds, Holmes said.
There are currently 10 new mines planned for northwestern B.C., threatening transboundary watersheds flowing into Alaska. The proposed mines include the Red Chris Mine, owned by Imperial Metals, the same operator of Mount Polley.
“The Alaskans and others have every right to be concerned about transboundary rivers,” Holmes said. “Alaska has its own mining concerns that don’t need to be compounded by a weak B.C. regulatory system.”
Calvin Sandborn, legal director of the Environmental Law Centre at the University of Victoria, said a previous B.C. report put together by a panel of experts found management failures contributed to the collapse of the tailings impoundment.
“We sure would like to see someone held to account for this incident,” Sandborn said.
“B.C. government officials have been telling us for years they have world-class laws, world–class standards when it comes to mining,” Sandborn said. In 2012, Premier Christy Clark told a Calgary audience B.C. has the “highest standard of sustainable mining in the world.”
“So do those laws really provide a remedy when you have one of the biggest mining disasters in the world?” Sandborn said. “The jury is still out on that.”
Sandborn said there are still two Mount Polley investigations pending — one conducted by the B.C. Conservation Office Service and another by the federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans.
Sandborn said in January a panel of independent experts brought together by B.C. recommended the province eliminate the use of wet tailings impoundments altogether and opt for safer dry stacked tailings — a tailings management technique used in many other mining jurisdictions.
“Most importantly we need to look to the future and accept the recommendations of the government’s own experts and stop ignoring that advice,” he said.
After the Mount Polley incident it was revealed Murray Edwards, owner of Imperial Metals, raised $1 million at a private fundraiser for Clarks’ re-election. The Mount Polley Mining Corporation has donated $46,720 to the B.C. Liberals and mining giant Teck Resources has donated $1.7 million over the last nine years.
“You have to wonder if the B.C. government is constrained because they get so many political contributions from the mining industry, if that is a factor in their policy,” Sandborn said.
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