Response will dictate industry's future
Mining equipment at the Mount Polley site. (SCREENGRAB IMPERIAL METALS)
This week's Duel topic: Can B.C.'s mining industry rebuild public trust?
No reasonable person can defend what happened last Monday in the mountains above Likely, B.C. Early in the morning, the tailings pond dam at the Mount Polley mine breached and released an estimated 10 million cubic metres of mine wastewater and 4.5 million cubic metres of metals-laden fine sand — contaminating several lakes, creeks and rivers in the Cariboo region of central B.C. The damage to the environment and impact on communities around the mine was substantial.
If there’s a glimmer of hope in this mess, it’s that this mine does not generate acid-tailings waste. If it did, the government would not have been able to partially lift the drinking water ban so quickly, as it did on Saturday for most of the village of Likely.
There are plenty of unanswered questions in the wake of the spill. What caused the breach? We don’t know. Both the Ministry of Environment and Ministry of Energy and Mines have teams investigating.
Did a lack of government inspections contribute to causing the spill? Uncertain. The mine — owned by Vancouver-based mining company Imperial Metals Corporation — has been in production for 15 of the last 19 years.
Read Laila Yuile's column here.
According to the environment ministry, during these 15 years inspectors conducted 16 geotechnical inspections of the mine. And if you include all types of inspections, the total is 130. I believe it’s too soon to claim more inspections could have prevented this spill.
Did regulatory easing create a laissez-faire environment contributing to the spill? Again, the answer is uncertain. Many sectors of the economy went through some form of deregulation in the 1990s as governments sought to improve financial conditions. However, there was no wholesale gutting of environmental standards and enforcement regulation — for that matter, I don’t know of any resource industry executive who would argue for that. A stable regulatory environment with effective enforcement and appropriate penalties are essential to industry for maintaining public trust.
Clearly, the Mount Polley spill has delivered a blow to public trust in B.C.’s mining industry, but it can be repaired. Rebuilding starts first with how the company reacts at the local level. Imperial Metals must be pro-active in the communities affected by the spill — communicate, facilitate and rehabilitate must be its mantra.
Equally important is government action. Visible oversight and effective leadership in the investigation and cleanup will go a long way to improve public confidence in an industry so vital to B.C.
Brent Stafford is a veteran television news-documentary producer and marketing specialist. You can watch his show at ShakyPolitics.com.
Who wins this week's Duel?