After Mount Polley, a Recipe for Better Mines – by Maura Forrest (The – August 25, 2014)

Science-focused journalist Maura Forrest is pursuing a master’s degree at the UBC Graduate School of Journalism and is completing a practicum at The Tyee.

Yes, we can create a more responsible, even sustainable industry.

Could the Mount Polley disaster have been prevented? It’s a difficult question to answer, with an independent investigation of the tailings dam breach just getting underway.

Certainly, concerns about the engineering of the tailings dam and the recent decline in mine inspections suggest the incident was not entirely unpredictable.

But if we change the question — if we look ahead and ask how similar accidents can be avoided — answers are easier to come by. And they indicate it’s not only tailings ponds that need to be changed; it’s our whole approach to mining.

Anna Johnston works at Vancouver-based West Coast Environmental Law to advance law reform proposals. She believes the philosophy of the mining industry needs a fundamental rethinking. “We need to have sustainability as the goal, not just minimizing harm,” she said.

Johnston said B.C.’s mining policy needs “a pretty serious overhaul,” starting at the very beginning of the process, when companies stake their claims to mineral rights.

She criticized British Columbia’s free-entry system, which allows prospectors to explore for minerals on Crown, private, and First Nations land without consulting landowners.

“Anyone with a computer and a credit card could stake a claim,” she said. “And a mineral tenure takes precedence over private property and land-use claims. It’s absurd.”

Johnston said we need laws that create “no-go zones” — areas that are off-limits to mines, including sites near critical fish-bearing rivers.

A precedent for this exists. In New Zealand, she pointed out, areas of particular importance to indigenous people are not included in mining permits. In Canada, recent changes to mining laws now require that companies in Ontario and Yukon consult with First Nations before exploring for minerals.

Johnston also believes changes to B.C.’s Environmental Assessment Act, implemented by the BC Liberal government in 2002, may have played a role in the Mount Polley spill.

She said Imperial Metals may not have had to submit environmental assessments for its mine expansions that caused more tailings to be discharged to the tailings pond.

A 2010 report by the University of Victoria’s Environmental Law Centre found that the 2002 Act only requires environmental assessments for mineral mines producing more than 75,000 tonnes per year, up from 25,000 tonnes in the original 1994 Act. Only expansions of more than 50 per cent of the original mine site would require a new assessment, up from a minimum of 35 per cent in the 1994 Act.

Johnston said those thresholds need to be lowered, and the public needs a stronger voice in the environmental assessment process.

Give power to the people

B.C.’s Fair Mining Collaborative, a non-profit that advocates on behalf of communities and the environment, has recently put together a 400-page mining code that outlines changes needed at every stage of a mine’s life, from consultation to compliance to closure.

Amy Crook, the collaborative’s executive director, said better enforcement of environmental standards could help prevent incidents like the Mount Polley spill.

Reversing the decline in mine inspections would help, she said. But there are other things that can be done, too.

“One of the things I think is lacking is a provision that would allow the public to request investigation for alleged infractions,” she said.

Such provisions are already in place in Alberta, Nova Scotia, Ontario, Yukon and the Northwest Territories.

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