MLA criticizes Ministry of Mines in wake of Auditor General audit

The Auditor General of B.C. released an audit criticizing the provincial government’s oversight of the mining industry earlier last week.

The Auditor General of B.C. released an audit criticizing the provincial government’s oversight of the mining industry earlier last week, prompting the provincial NDP Opposition to call for the resignation of Minister of Energy and Mines and Kootenay East MLA Bill Bennett.

B.C. Auditor General Carol Bellringer released her Audit of Compliance and Enforcement of the Mining Sector on Tuesday, May 3th and said, in the news release accompanying it, “almost all of our expectations for a robust compliance and enforcement program were not met,” and that “the compliance and enforcement activities of both the Ministry of Energy and Mines, and the Ministry of Environment are not set up to protect the province from environmental risks.”

Bellringer referenced the failure of the Mt. Polley tailings dam in 2014, saying “to avoid such failures, business as usual cannot continue.”

“The Auditor General’s report is one of the most scathing I’ve seen in 12 years of being an MLA. They are usually technical documents. This is some of the strongest language I’ve ever seen in them,” Columbia River-Revelstoke NDP MLA Norm Macdonald told The Echo.

Macdonald, who is the Opposition Critic for Energy and Mines, added the Ministry of Energy and Mines is the sole organization in the province that protects the public’s interest when it comes to mines “and they’ve simply not been doing the work that’s needed.”

The auditor general’s news release said the audit found indications of major gaps in resources, planning and tools in both the Ministry of Energy and Mines and the Ministry of Environment, such as insufficient staff and staff having to work with cumbersome and incomplete data systems. The release stated that, as a result, monitoring and inspections of mines was inadequate to ensure mine operators complied with requirements. The report concluded with 16 recommendations, including creating a new independent compliance and enforcement organization, separate from the Ministry of Mines and Energy.

“Basically, the report is saying that the failure that occurred at Mt. Polley could occur elsewhere across the province,” said Macdonald. “There needs to be a dramatic change, and more rigorous oversight, and so far I don’t see a willingness for that. The government is saying they accept the findings, but then they are arguing against the central recommendation (of creating a independent compliance and enforcement organization for mines). They’ve made it clear they do not want to go in that direction.”

Macdonald said , in his view, the Mt. Polley incident can’t be considered an accident since it resulted from “sloppy activities that shouldn’t have taken place” and added that such incidents tarnish the reputation of the mining industry as a whole. The Alaskan government, for instance, has raised objections about upstream mine developments in northwestern B.C. ever since Mt. Polley, he said.

“So there’s not only potential safety issues and environmental degradation, but you also make development of other mines difficult, and hamper the economy and jobs that comes with them,” said Macdonald.

Provincial leader John Horgan issued a press release shortly after the Auditor General’s report came out, referencing a comment Bennett had previously made whereby if his ministry was negligent in the Mt. Polley incident that he would resign, and Horgan called on him to do just that.

“Bill Bennett made that commitment. This report makes it clear that the ministry is to blame and that means the minister is ultimately responsible. He’s rejected the call and that is what it is,” said Macdonald.

But Bennett has a different take on the matter.

“The NDP is trying to turn the Auditor General’s report into an investigation, which it’s not,” he said.

He pointed to two investigations into the cause of the Mt. Polley tailing dame failure one conducted by an independent expert engineering panel (which concluded in January 2015) and the other conducted by the provincial chief inspector of mines (which concluded in December 2015).

“It may be hard to understand, but you have to separate the independent investigation into the Mt. Polley incident with the Auditor General’s report, which is a general performance review,” Bennett told The Echo. “The report is good, but it’s not an investigation. They are not engineers, they did not visit the site. The independent panel are engineers, they did visit the site and it was their task to determine was the cause (of the tailing dam failure was). And they were quite clear that the cause was from foundational material (under the dam) in the subsurface, which, when it’s loaded up, its characteristic changes from something solid to something like a banana peel.”

In the section of the panel’s investigation report on regulatory oversight, that panel writes that “additional inspections of the tailings storages facility would not have prevented the (dam) failure.”

“It’s unfortunate that the Auditor General’s report insinuates that staff levels have anything to do with the Mt. Polley disaster. There is absolutely zero evidence in the Auditor General’s report to back that up,” said Bennett, adding that the auditor’s report does highlight a lack of inspectors in 2009, 2010 and 2011, which is a valid point that needs to be addressed, but which is not related to the cause of the Mt. Polley dam failure.

Bennett said many of the recommendations in the Auditor General’s report are good ones and the ministry is already in the process of implementing them, but the ministry is holding off on creating a independent compliance and enforcement organization separate from the ministry.

“We’re not promising to do this until we do a jurisdictional scan and see if there is anywhere else in the world that does it, so we can see have a model and see how it works, since there are some really good practical reasons to keep it in the ministry,” he said.

The Auditor General’s report also stated that some mining companies have not provided enough financial security deposits to the provincial government to cover potential reclamation costs if a mining company defaults on its obligation, adding these deposits are underfunded by about $1 billion, and that taxpayers could be on the hook if these deposits are not topped up.

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