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Mining Minister Responds to Tyee Story on Land Disputes

And our reporter replies to his letter.

By Bill Bennett 26 Jun 2006 | TheTyee.ca

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B.C. Minister Of State for Mining, Bill Bennett.

I am writing in response to your the June 14 article, 'War Brewing' over Mining Rights in Rural B.C.' The writer is correct in noting that there is an ongoing dispute between neighbours in the Bluenose mountain area, where it appears one party attempted to use mining laws to his advantage. However, it is not accurate to say this is the result of B.C.'s new online mineral title system. The rights of property owners and mineral owners were not altered by the introduction of this system. Nor were the fees for recording and holding mineral claims changed. What has changed is the previous requirement to physically mark mineral claims on the ground by cutting trees and blazing lines. This requirement has been replaced by recording on an electronic map, eliminating the need to cut vegetation.

The laws regarding private surface rights and subsurface rights in B.C. are similar to those throughout Canada. The holder of subsurface interests has the right to use the surface to access the resource. B.C.'s Mineral Tenure Act actually restrains rights of the subsurface holder by restricting the areas where a miner can explore. For example, a miner is restricted from exploring on land occupied by a building, on orchard land or land under cultivation, protected heritage property or land in a park.

The dispute between Mr. Essington and Mr. Westie and others is indeed unfortunate but should not be considered in any way typical of interaction between miners and surface rights owners. Staff from the Ministry of Energy, Mines and Petroleum Resources and local MLA Tom Christensen met with Mr. Westie. The police have investigated, as has a ministry claims inspector. Corrective actions have been hampered by lack of physical evidence of wrongdoing and, for a period of time, the reluctance of people to make a formal complaint. The Chief Gold Commissioner has since ordered Mr. Essington to refrain from entering certain lands without permission. Failure to abide by the order could lead to further sanctions.

The writer's points regarding pollution and investment are misleading. Mineral exploration and mining is not exempt from pollution laws in British Columbia; we have some of the highest standards in the world. In addition, government did not "spend $400 million on mining exploration." This was money invested by mining companies -- not government -- and created literally thousands of new jobs for British Columbians. Further, property values in Sechelt are going up, not down. In fact, I just saw a report from the Greater Vancouver Real Estate Board showing property values there have risen 70 per cent since 2001.

I'd like to conclude by saying mining and mineral claims are legitimate rights, with claims being just the first step in a long and extensive process towards a potential mine. The majority of mineral exploration in B.C. occurs on Crown land and, in instances where miners interact with private landowners, relations are usually amicable. This unusual event is regrettable and I encourage Mr. Westie to maintain contact with ministry staff if he has anything to report.

Sincerely,

Bill Bennett
B.C. Minister of State for Mining

Tyee reporter Kendyl Salcito responds:

Mr. Bennett is correct that I made a mistake in writing that "In the past three years, the government has spent over $400 million on mining exploration, providing infrastructure...to entice miners." As he says, that figure is industry's investment, which the B.C. government claims has been spurred by slashed taxes and energy bills, as well as streamlined regulations. Government's own direct investment, based on what I find at the B.C, Mining Plan website, is likely closer to $100 million, including $32 million for new port and rail facilities at Prince Rupert and $44 million on "Highway 37 projects supporting northwest BC exploration."

Regarding Mr. Bennett's other problems with my story, may I respectfully point out:

Mr. Bennett claims I was "misleading" when I wrote that his government "exempted some mines from pollution laws." In fact, that is exactly what Bill-54 did. It exempted some mining activities from a permit process requiring environmental safeguards.

Mr. Bennett claims that when the B.C. Liberals created an online system to allow people to stake claims to mineral rights from their computer at a cost of $0.40 a hectare, this saves "vegetation" the wear and tear of physical surveying. That rationale comes as a surprise. On a government web site, Minister Richard Neufeld has stated that the goal of the system is to "increase mining exploration and development" and "reduce costs for both government and industry" while eliminating the delay between staking and receiving a mineral title. No mention of going light on nature.

One effect of online staking has been to allow Mr. Essington to lay claim to land owned by Mr. Westie and Mr. Yakelashek far more easily than was previously possible. The resulting intrusion into the land, and lives, of Mr. Westie and Mr. Yakelashek hasn't been stopped with any finality by officials, Mr. Bennett says, because of a "lack of physical evidence of wrongdoing." Mr. Yakelashek would disagree, given that he has sent a package containing photos and other evidence he deems compelling to the Gold Commissioner, and given that he has yet to hear what officials think of his evidence.

Mr. Bennett asserts that other provinces have mining legislation "similar" to ours in B.C. Similar, perhaps, but with some key differences. For example, in Manitoba, a miner can only explore his claims on private property with the landowner's consent. And Manitoba requires miners to reclaim land according to the principle of sustainable development as outlined in their Mines and Minerals Act. New Brunswick empowers the designated minister to deny a mining lease pending approval of an environmentally sound reclamation proposal. Even Saskatchewan has a policy of "discretionary" exploration permits, granted only to miners that the minister deems fit. Tyee readers can find a comparison of such differences in a West Coast Environmental Law report here.

Mr. Bennett states that the B.C. Mineral Tenure Act restricts a miner from exploring on land occupied by a building, cultivated plot, heritage site or park. This isn't reflected in the experiences of several people I interviewed. For example, West Hawk Developers "explored" their claim on the Yorston's ranch, which has been cultivated since the late 1800s. Mr. Westie's home is on his property, and until Mr. Essington's title came under dispute, he was allowed to enter the property. One restriction to which I presume Mr. Bennett refers is the 75-metre radius around a dwelling that is protected. Mr. Bennett told me in our interview that 75 metres is a "guideline" and it is unclear to me how strictly the Act upholds that space requirement.

In my story I listed a number of examples in places ranging from Kamloops to Rock Creek to Quesnel to the Sechelt Peninsula, where people were forced to put up with mining exploration or excavation on their land against their wishes. Property values are up in Sechelt, as they are throughout much of the province, but some are likely to be affected by the work of Pan Pacific Mining which has claimed almost 20,000 hectares of mineral rights and is preparing to send hundreds of tons of gravel down hillsides by conveyer belts to waiting ships.

I believe Tyee readers would be interested in hearing Mr. Bennett address the concerns of any of these outraged citizens. Instead, he repeats in his letter what he said in our interview: "relations are usually amicable" between miners and private landowners.

To read the original story, "'War Brewing' over Mining Rights in Rural B.C.," go here.  [Tyee]

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