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Opinion

Mine Disaster: Who Will Investigate Gov't Failings?

Mount Polley panel picked to be expert in engineering, not legal, technicalities.

By Rafe Mair 1 Sep 2014 | TheTyee.ca

Rafe Mair writes a column for The Tyee every other week. Read his previous columns here. He is also a founding contributor to The Common Sense Canadian.

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Above responsibility? Premier Christy Clark flies over Mount Polley tailings pond catastrophe. Source: Facebook.

The blue ribbon panel team set up by the provincial government to investigate the Mount Polley mine disaster will find out what caused the tailings pond dam to collapse.

The second and critically important question, however, is what, if any, role the government of British Columbia played or should have played. In fact, this is the most important aspect, because B.C. had a longstanding legal, not to mention moral, duty which it appears from all the evidence was not fulfilled -- and which, if fulfilled, may well have stopped the catastrophe from happening in the first place.

In the probe the government has set up, there is mandated virtually no investigation of the role of the mining or environment ministries. There are 14 terms of reference, 13 of which deal strictly with the collapse itself, one of which may be interpreted as giving the panel members the right to look at the government's role if they feel so inclined.

It does not take a genius to recognize that this panel is unsuited to look at any regulatory role the government should have played. That's not their bag. They are picked for their skills at investigating mining methods, not regulation enforcement.

To look at a government role and the law and regulations requires a specific sort of person, and it's difficult to think of anyone suited other than a highly experienced lawyer or judge. To even begin to know the right questions requires a training that a scientist doesn't, by nature, have. He or she may be highly skilled and trained, but not for this purpose.

In short, what we have here is a whitewash in advance by Premier Clark of the government that she and her mentor Gordon Campbell have run since 2001.

Crime against democracy

There is considerable evidence that the regulations were not properly enforced. This does not come from any suspicion that public servants have not done their job. Rather, it is been clear since 2001 that the new "laissez-faire" government was not very fond of red tape. It hated rules and regulations and has by nature deregulated. It brought, as promised, a new deal for big business.

It's not much of a secret as to why that should be so. The government's election campaigns have been heavily funded by the mining industry, and one of the larger players has been Imperial Metals, the owner of the Mount Polley mine.

This has all the earmarks of an enormous scandal. All of the elements are there -- money, influence, a laissez-faire government that abhors regulations, and a strong line of evidence indicating that regulations simply were not properly enforced.

Premier Christy Clark, while much interested in seeing Polley Lake made "pretty" again, shows no interest in having her government and its policies investigated.

This is a monstrous crime against the democratic process.

International fallout

The ramifications of the Mount Polley disaster extend beyond B.C. borders in ways that will come back to harm us, as Stephen Hume explained last week in the Vancouver Sun.

''If B.C.'s environmental assessment process is tarnished as untrustworthy and the province lacks credibility in enforcement, big problems loom.''

Why? Hume explains:

''The venerable 1909 treaty, signed just four years after international negotiations settled the acrimonious B.C.-Alaska boundary dispute, requires each country not to pollute waters that flow across borders.''

A number of the mines that the B.C. government hopes to see built in the northwest corner of the province are close enough to the Alaska border to have now become, as Hume writes, ''political footballs'' in the U.S.

Politicians of every stripe and standing in neighbouring Alaska are voicing outraged skepticism about B.C.'s ability to do mining properly, as are their First Nations. At a time when he is occupied with a great number of critical issues, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry is involved. The International Salmon Commission, the International Joint Commission and on it goes, all involved.

We tend to forget that salmon are at once a lucrative industry and icons for powerful conservation organizations in the U.S. And that fish affected by environmental disasters in B.C. are not just our fish, but also belong to the U.S. in the same way that many fish in American rivers belong to Canada.

The federal government of Canada can no longer avoid getting into the thick of this. As if this were not bad enough, the mid-term U.S. elections approach.

As we try to sort this out, our province's leader deals with all of these serious matters with touchy-feely answers and photo-ops. The minister responsible is hopeless.

The only firm decision made has been that responsibility of Clark government for failing to prevent the Mount Polley disaster won't be examined to any serious degree.

Over her head

The whole matter has been treated casually, almost dreamily, by the Clark government. Minister Bennett and his government press releases have made it out that the main, perhaps only concern is the quality of the water after the disaster. While no one would deny that this is important, the other huge issues has raised by Hume and others have been ignored.

One has to ask if the minister has as yet decided whether a dam actually burst or not. Throughout the musings by the Liberals, I've been unable to avoid the feeling of living in the midst of Alice's Wonderland.

As long as our political leaders take charge and show leadership, we usually will forgive them when we disagree with them -- in which case we then vote in a new lot.

This all changes when the natural dislike of politicians turns to contempt and shame.

Premier Clark, Minister Bennett and by inference the rest of the B.C. cabinet have brought us shame. We not only look like fools, we are. We are yokels.

If it was only a matter of looking bad, that would be one thing. Much worse, thanks to Clark and her government, we have abdicated our responsibility to look after our own affairs. A great part of having authority is showing it. We have demonstrated to the world that we are incapable of handling the basic tasks of government.

The buck stops with Premier Clark. She has an obligation to lead, not yap nice sounds.

But governments cannot be properly led by picnics and airplane rides complete with photographers.

She is utterly incompetent, in way over her head.

She has to go.  [Tyee]

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