First under investigation for the disaster will be the provincial government
by Greg Klein
Through numerous calls for an independent investigation into the Mount Polley disaster, its causes and the companies involved, British Columbia’s government has been stalling. Now, 10 days after the tailings dam collapse, an investigation is finally underway—into the provincial government. Surely this isn’t the ruling BC Liberal party’s preferred response. But on August 14 the province’s Information and Privacy Commissioner announced an investigation into “whether government should have notified the public about potential risks” from the mine.
“My office has been closely monitoring recent events involving the Mount Polley mine tailings pond breach, which has significantly impacted the people and lands of B.C.’s Cariboo region,” said a written statement from commissioner Elizabeth Denham. “In the aftermath of the breach, concerns are being raised about what government knew about the condition of the Mount Polley mine and whether the public should have been notified of potential risks before the disaster occurred.”
The miner and the provincial government were warned about the tailings pond as far back as February 2011, according to the facility’s original designer. On August 8 Knight Piésold Ltd said it had previously told Mount Polley Mining Corp, a subsidiary of Imperial Metals TSX:III, and B.C.’s Chief Inspector of Mines that “the embankments and the overall tailings impoundment are getting large and it is extremely important that they be monitored, constructed and operated properly to prevent problems in the future.”
Knight Piésold “informed Imperial Metals that we would not continue as the engineer of record for the Mount Polley mine on February 10, 2011, and subsequently ceased to perform that role.” The job then went to engineering rival Amec. “Significant engineering and design changes were made subsequent to our involvement, such that the tailings storage facility can no longer be considered a Knight Piésold Ltd design,” the original company stated.
If correct, that would appear to point responsibility at Imperial, Amec or both. And the province. The supposedly mining-friendly BC Liberals have already come under fire for cutbacks to the department responsible for inspecting mines.
Denham stated her office had received a complaint against the government. Giving no indication how long the inquiry might take, she added her office “will not make any further comment until the investigation is complete.”
The province has also heard calls to order an inquiry—preferably at arm’s length, especially since Imperial controlling shareholder N. Murray Edwards is a prominent BC Liberal fundraiser. But no such inquiry has been called, 10 days after some 15 million cubic metres of tailings effluent poured into the watershed.
Will the information commissioner’s investigation affect a ministry decision on whether to order an inquiry itself? By press time a mines ministry spokesperson hadn’t replied to the question from ResourceClips.com. (Update: On August 18 the B.C. government ordered an independent investigation.)
Nor had she responded to a question about a comment from mines minister Bill Bennett. It followed statements to the media from former Imperial employee Gerald MacBurney, who said the company ignored his warnings that the tailings dam should be bolstered.
“They needed to put in five million tonnes around the dam,” Vancouver Province columnist Michael Smyth quoted him. “I was just sick. You just know this was going to happen.”
According to Smyth, Bennett dismissed MacBurney as “an unhappy former employee.”
Was that the minister’s best response—to smear a critic? And how did Bennett hear that remark in the first place? At a time of crisis was he discussing personnel matters and spin tactics with Imperial?
This particular incident is not solely a government, first nation, environmentalist, industry or company-centric problem. This is a shared human dilemma…—David McLelland,
chairperson of the Association for
Mineral Exploration B.C.
Nevertheless Bennett told Smyth, “I have to listen to the engineers and the biologists and the geo-technical experts. It’s their advice that I have to follow. And the advice I received was that the company was doing everything that they were supposed to be doing. We will find out if they weren’t.”
Let’s hope so. Meanwhile the information commissioner might find out if Bennett and his staff weren’t.
Of course other questions persist. Once responsibility has been determined, who’ll pay for damages? Reuters attributes Imperial with “$1.5 million in cash versus $464 million in debt, and a working capital deficit of $21.7 million as of the end of March.” Heavily in hoc while building its Red Chris mine, the company might not even hold insurance for environmental disasters, the news agency added. (Update: Late August 14 Imperial announced a private placement to raise another $100 million in debt through six-year debentures.)
So should the miner be found responsible, how would it pay? Last week Imperial president Brian Kynoch tried to reassure a community meeting in the disaster-struck region. Admitting that the company doesn’t have the $400 million that some rough estimates suggest would be necessary, he said Imperial intended to get it. Despite heightened opposition to Imperial’s other B.C. projects CBC quoted him saying, “We are going to have to get mines generating to make that money.”
Great plan, but maybe just a tad difficult. Mount Polley might have done to B.C. mining what Fukushima did to Japanese nuclear energy.
But putting a more nuanced perspective on it was David McLelland, chairperson of the Association for Mineral Exploration B.C. Pointing out that “everyone uses and benefits from the metals and minerals” produced by mining, he said in an August 7 statement, “This particular incident is not solely a government, first nation, environmentalist, industry or company-centric problem. This is a shared human dilemma that I know we can improve if we work together and consider all the scientific data, causal factors, remediation strategies and options.”