B.C. Liberals ignoring problems in government that led to Mount Polley disaster

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John Horgan

Asian Journal Exclusive

John Horgan
John Horgan

By John Horgan, leader, B.C. New Democrats

The disaster at Mount Polley was avoidable. That was one of the key findings of a panel of experts that released their report into the disaster last week.

The report identified a number of factors, including serious failures in government monitoring, that led to the spill of 25 million cubic meters of mining waste, sludge and water into a creek and into Quesnel Lake on Aug. 4, 2014.

But Mines Minister Bill Bennett seemed to believe this report accomplished something else: it gave his government someone else to blame.

In his reaction to the report, the minister ignored the dozens of pages of findings that condemned a decade of insufficient government oversight – oversight that allowed the tailings pond at Mount Polley to grow and become increasingly unstable.

Instead, the minister focused solely on findings that a flaw in the original design of the dam, which was built before his government was in office, was also a factor in the disaster. This is despite the fact that there have been at least 13 amendments to the dam safety permit.

Following this disaster, the B.C. Liberals should be hard at work trying to build back credibility for our mining industry, which creates thousands of jobs in our province. Instead, they seem to be hard at work deflecting responsibility for their mismanagement.

You just can’t take the B.C. Liberals at their word anymore.

The expert panel found that government regulators repeatedly approved the raising of the tailings dam incrementally with little long-term planning or execution, and allowed Imperial Metals to significantly increase the storage of water in the tailings storage facility. This exacerbated the size of the breach and the environmental impact of the spill.

Repeatedly raising the dam, in large measure to address rising water levels, led to over steepened dam slopes, deferred buttressing, and, according to the report, “the seemingly ad hoc nature of dam expansion that so often ended up constructing something different from what had originally been designed.”

It was just eight days before the breach that government regulators approved the need to improve dam strength – in the view of the expert panel, it was the “final, fateful instance of too little, too late.”

The B.C. Liberals have responded to this report by requiring operators of other tailings dams to look for the same structural problems that underlie the Mount Polley failure.

The measure is necessary and a good start, but it doesn’t go nearly far enough, and does little to restore the confidence of the public.

After the B.C. Liberals have spent the last decade cutting inspections and regulations, our province has significant work to do to repair the damage and restore public trust. We need to start by restoring the mines ministry to ensure that we have the proper expertise to review and evaluate mine and dam safety.

We also need our government to address the findings in this report, rather than trying to deflect from them. Until then, the B.C. Liberals are leaving the public and the industry with more questions and answers.