On May 3, B.C.’s Auditor General, released a 109-page report in regards to British Columbia’s mining industry. The report titled “An Audit of Compliance and Enforcement in the Mining Sector” was authored by Carol Bellringer and concluded that the B.C. provincial government is not adequately prepared to protect the environment in the situation of a mining disaster. The report took two years to complete and was underway prior to the 2014 disaster at Mount Polley, where a tailings pond collapsed causing millions of cubic meters of waste to spill into waterways in the Cariboo region.
Kootenay East MLA and Minister of Energy and Mines, Bill Bennett, responded to the report saying he was grateful for the auditor general’s insights. Bennett says his government hopes to implement the 17 suggestions made in the report by the end of 2016.
“We certainly accept gratefully 16 of the 17. One we are not sure about – we are going to implement it at least in part, is the one that indicated the permitting of mining should be separated from the compliance and enforcement of mining,” Bennett told The Free Press.
Bennett says this recommendation may be harder to implement due to the complexity of certain mining permits.
“You take a mine up in the Elk Valley, they could have 50 or 60 or even over 100 different conditions attached to that permit. To have the permitting branch residing in one ministry and the compliance and enforcement in a totally separate ministry would make it very difficult for the compliance and enforcement people because they wouldn’t have been involved in the permitting and wouldn’t understand the conditions and why they are there and what they are intended to do and that is why no other province has done this.”
According to Bennett, the Ministry of Environment and Mines has already started working towards implementing some of the recommendations before the report was released.
“We have already started implementing. Even some of the recommendations from the Auditor General that came out yesterday were already in the process of being implemented and we will have most of the 43 recommendations from the three reports implemented by the end of this year,” he said, referring to other recommendations made after investigations into the Mount Polley disaster.
The NDP criticized Bennett after the report was released, calling for Bennett’s resignation.
“The report is a damning condemnation of the BC Liberal’s approach to regulating a critical B.C. industry that is the economic backbone of many B.C. communities,” said John Horgan, leader of the provincial NDP party in an email to The Free Press. “The report aptly describes the government’s regulatory approach as a “decade of neglect”, which really means that the BC Liberals [are] spending too much time listening to big donors and corporate shareholders and not enough time listening to mine workers and First Nations who want to ban mining practices. The critical point is this: if you don’t regulate the industry properly, mines fail like they did at Mount Polley, and mine workers lose their jobs.”
Horgan says that regulation should be a fundamental factor in the mining industry, as it will help keep jobs in B.C. by keeping mines open longer. The Elk Valley, which has an estimated 4,000 direct jobs and 5,000 indirect invested in the mining industry, stands to be impacted by mine closures.
“If you don’t regulate the industry properly, mines fail like they did at Mount Polley and mine workers lose their jobs. That is bad for communities like the Elk Valley. A properly regulated industry is one that is sustainable and one in which the industry, workers and their families don’t have to fear for their livelihoods. That is the kind of industry I want to see, one where mine workers can have confidence in their jobs.”
Horgan is calling for Bennett’s resignation, citing the auditor general’s report as a reason to overhaul the Ministry of Energy and Mines. To this, Bennett said he has no intention of resigning, as the investigation into Mount Polley did not prove neglect within his ministry caused the tailings pond to breach.
“What I said was if they come back through the investigation and determine that my ministry was negligent and that negligence caused the accident, I would resign. That was an investigation. This is not an investigation into the accident. I have absolutely no intention of resigning because my ministry did not cause the accident at Mount Polley,” Bennett said. “Both of those investigations determined that the accident was caused by a layer of unstable material underneath one of the embankments that was missed when the original investigation was done. I don’t know why I would resign for a mistake that was made in the 1990s.”