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Government under investigation over alleged Mount Polley secrecy

British Columbia's Information and Privacy Commissioner will investigate whether the provincial government broke the law and failed to warn citizens of potential risks at the Mount Polley mine waste dam near Likely.

The Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act contains a clause under the heading Public Interest Paramount that trumps the rest of the law. Section 25 says government must proactively release information about potential risks to the environment and public health.

"My office has been closely monitoring recent events involving the Mount Polley mine tailings-pond breach, which has significantly impacted the people and lands of B.C.'s Cariboo region," Denham said in an Aug. 14 news release announcing her probe.

"In the aftermath of the breach, concerns are being raised about what government knew about the condition of the Mount Polley mine and whether the public should have been notified of potential risks before the disaster occurred."

Denham has the power to interview witnesses -- including government and company officials -- under oath and order them to release documents. The news release said Denham would make no further comment until the investigation is complete and published.

Denham made the announcement less than a week after an advocate for government openness complained. Vincent Gogolek, executive director of the B.C. Freedom of Information and Privacy Association, formally complained Aug. 8 that the government failed to perform its statutory duty to warn citizens about the state of the Mount Polley mining waste dam before the Aug. 4 disaster.

In a 2013 report, Denham found that the government failed to adhere to section 25 before the 2010 failure of the Testalinden Dam near Oliver. The government withheld from the public reports since the FOI law was enacted in 1993 that warned the aging dam was a hazard to people and property.

Veteran journalist Bob Mackin is a frequent contributor to The Tyee.

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