Mining — and resource development in general — involves risk. Nowhere was that risk more evident than in the images of the tailings breach and environmental devastation from Mount Polley last year.
While B.C.'s Information and Privacy Commissioner let the provincial government off the hook yesterday in terms of its disclosure of information, the commissioner highlighted the need to re-interpret Section 25 of the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act so that urgent circumstances are no longer required to proactively disclose information that is in the public interest. The report found information the ministries had about the mine did not meet provincial requirements to share the risks to residents. However, they had information about two events that they could have disclosed.
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The Mount Polley disaster demonstrated that we must do a better job of managing risk around all development projects in this province. If we don't want another Mount Polley it's essential that government ministries have adequate resources devoted to inspection, monitoring and enforcement. Costs for these must be shared with companies deriving the benefits from resource extraction. Companies should be required to post a fully paid security or bond that would cover the entire costs of environment cleanup in the event of an accident. Citizens and taxpayers alone must not be left to foot the bill for expensive cleanups.
Assessing the risk to public safety and possibility of harm to people or the environment is an important tenet of a sound approach to mining and resource-extraction projects in general. The risk to the town of Likely and the surrounding environment was enormous and impacts of the breach continue to come to light.
The commissioner's recommendations around proactive disclosure could be a good step, but there is a lot of subjectivity involved. Given government cutbacks to the very resources that would need to be activated for a rapid proactive response, it's difficult to hold out hope that this change alone will reduce risk to communities, the environment and people's health and safety.
The risk of more mining accidents — and more environmental damage — is real. The B.C. First Nations Energy and Mining Council found in a recent report that mining operations threaten more than 230 northern aboriginal and non-aboriginal communities and even the drinking water of Prince George, Terrace and Smithers. The report, Uncertainty Upstream: Potential Threats from Tailings Facility Failures in Northern British Columbia, found that 35 tailing ponds at 26 mines in 48 watersheds have the potential to affect fish-bearing waters in the region.
The decision on re-opening Mount Polley is imminent. B.C.'s chief inspector of mines says the government will implement the recommendations of the previously released independent panel report into the disaster. B.C.'s operating mines are required to provide letters to confirm the structure of their tailings ponds and the province is moving to establish independent tailings dam review boards. Whether these changes will be enough to turn the dial down on the risk of environmental disasters from mining operation remains to be seen. There is no doubt, however, that better monitoring, more inspections and greater transparency would better protect British Columbians.