No reason to be confident in environmental protection – by Barbara Yaffe (Vancouver Sun – August 7, 2014)

Missteps give B.C. residents no reason to trust companies or government

Could there be a worse time in B.C. to have a tailings pond disaster?

Never mind that the salmon are spawning. A wee debate is taking place in this province about whether to sanction a pipeline to the coast and tanker transport of bitumen along B.C.’s coastline.

Albertans, hoping to get their petroleum to the West Coast, must be as distressed as British Columbians at the Aug. 4 breach of the Mount Polley tailings pond. Or they should be.

That is because this environmental catastrophe is bound to have a chilling effect on those in B.C. who otherwise might have been open to being convinced that — should Enbridge comply with the province’s five conditions and the 209 imposed by a federal review panel — well, maybe the job-generating Northern Gateway project would be worth the presumably diminished risk.

Not now. A slurry of metal-laden sand and waste water from that Imperial Metals tailings pond could well be mistaken for bitumen, with its greyish colour and ability to carry timber and other detritus along with it on its determined path.

This is what happens when goop mixes with water. A water ban, barring both drinking and bathing, was put in place in the vicinity of the breach and aboriginal fishers now fear for the season’s salmon run.

A Thursday press release issued by two aboriginal bands in the area had the piercing ring of an I-told-you-so message: “The Mount Polley tailings pond disaster … should serve as a deafening wake-up call for all British Columbians,” said Loretta Williams, chief of the Williams Lake band and Bev Sellars, Soda Creek band chief.

“Our lasting economy is what swims by in the river and lakes, walks on and grows on the land and flies in the air — and this is what can be destroyed by a lust for the temporary dollars mining can provide.”

But the chiefs might just as well said “by a lust for the temporary dollars bitumen can provide.”

B.C. Mines Minister Bill Bennett has admitted: “I am losing sleep over this. This gives us about the best reason a person could have to really take a step back. Every Canadian has to be concerned about this.

“This will cause everyone in government across the country to re-examine policies.”

The disaster also will reaffirm a widespread belief that corporate entities — which always assure everyone that all necessary safeguards are in place — generally have profit, not safety, as their overwhelming priority. And that when a disaster happens a succession of mistakes usually can be traced back to the company bearing responsible for the mishap.

In this case, sure enough, Imperial Metals had ignored years of government warnings about the level of tailings pond waste water at its gold-copper mine near Likely. It received the latest of five warnings in May for exceeding the permitted height of waste water in the pond.

Also reaffirmed will be a suspicion government is not tough enough on resource development companies that do not play by the rules. In this case, why did B.C. allow Imperial Metals to keep operating through five warnings about its tailings pond?

And then there’s the 2011 report from environmental consultant Brian Olding which cited the tailings pond problem as well as the fact the company had no contingency plan for a tailings pond failure.

But these nuggets always emerge after, rather than before, a disaster.

Mistakes happen. But if issues are foreseen but neglected, if there’s inadequate oversight and no contingency plan, how confident should British Columbians be that the province’s environment is being adequately protected?

Not very.

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