Two years ago, on Aug. 4, 2014, the walls holding 25 million cubic metres of mine effluent in a tailings pond at the Mount Polley mine in Likely, B.C., collapsed, sending a wave of waste into nearby waterways. The result is considered one of the worst mining disasters in Canadian history. Two months ago, that same mine was permitted to resume full operations without a long-term water management plan, while an ongoing B.C. Conservation Officer Service investigation into the disaster continues and human rights concerns remain unaddressed.
The tailings pond breach released tonnes of toxic sludge into Polley Lake and salmon-bearing Quesnel Lake, and destroyed nearby Hazeltine Creek. And now, effluent from the re-opened mine flows once again from its rebuilt tailings pond into Quesnel Lake. The mine has been allowed to reopen although the government isn’t expected to approve the company’s long-term water management plan until late 2016. Meanwhile, all aspects of the systems needed to avoid a repeat disaster have been found lacking.
On Jan. 30, 2015, an expert panel established to review the collapse of the dam, owned by Imperial Metals, published its findings. It suggested the disaster was a preventable accident made worse by repeatedly raising the dam to hold more tailings without the addition of proper supports. Combined with the fact that the dam was built on an unstable foundation of glacial silt, which the company did not know at the time, the experts found the pond had been a recipe for disaster aggravated by efforts to increase its capacity. Imperial Metals is currently suing two engineering firms responsible for designing and monitoring the tailings pond, even though one firm removed itself as the “engineer of record” for the mine in 2011 after voicing concerns about it.
In February 2015, the B.C. Conservation Officer Service, accompanied by the RCMP and other federal agencies, raided Imperial Metals and Mount Polley Mining Corporation’s offices as part of its investigation into whether or not the company violated sections of the BC Environment Management Act or the Federal Fisheries Act. While the Chief Inspector of Mines decided not to recommend criminal charges against Imperial Metals after a separate investigation last year, the results of the investigation by the Conservation Officer Service are still pending.
Another report by B.C.’s Auditor General Carol Bellringer examined the regulatory framework overseen by the Ministry of Energy and Mines. Her report found that, across the board, the province fails to adequately monitor mine operators, increasing the risk of serious accidents such as the Mount Polley disaster. In response, she recommended that responsibility for the enforcement and monitoring of mines’ compliance with provincial regulations be removed from the Ministry of Energy and Mines, which has a vested interest in promoting development of energy projects, and handed to an independent body. The government rejected that recommendation.
At the same time, B.C. residents have also come to learn that the government does not require companies to post full financial assurances for mine remediation or any funds for one-off disasters. That means in British Columbia the polluter does not necessarily pay the full cost of environmental damages arising from these types of accidents. In the case of Mount Polley, the company did spend millions of dollars on clean-up, but a lot of that spending was subsidized by taxpayers in the form of tax write-offs Imperial Metals was able to claim for cleaning up its own mess and hydro expense deferrals.
Together, these shortcomings amount to a system that cannot prevent disasters like Mount Polley. And, in the worst-case scenario, polluters may not be forced to pay the full costs of their accidents, undermining environmental protection. Naturally, this leaves Indigenous communities and other residents in the area to wonder who’s at the helm when it comes to ensuring protection of human rights within the natural resource sector.
B.C. has more than 160 resource development projects underway or under development. When accidents occur, people must have the right to an effective remedy for the harms they experience. That includes measures to ensure non-repetition. In the case of Mount Polley, people have a right to expect the government will do a better job regulating, monitoring and inspecting mines and enforcing compliance with regulations. They also deserve an answer to the question of why the mine was allowed to reopen and return to full capacity without a long-term water management plan. The rights to safe water, a healthy environment and livelihoods are at stake if the government fails in its responsibility.
Moreover, the Supreme Court of Canada has affirmed in numerous decisions that, in cases where projects include potential for serious harm to Indigenous communities, those projects should only be undertaken with their free, prior and informed consent. The majority of resource projects underway or under development in the province affect lands and waters that are vital to the cultures and economies of Indigenous peoples, and it is crucial that their rights are respected.
We now look to the province to ensure Imperial Metals fully cleans up the Mount Polley site and fix what is wrong with British Columbia’s mining regulation, compliance and enforcement mechanisms. Political will – rather than more reviews, recommendations and lengthy court cases – is needed to protect British Columbians’ human rights in the resource sector.