Calvin Sandborn is legal director of the University of Victoria’s Environmental Law Centre.
We’ve done it with the highest standard of sustainable mining in the world… Premier Christy Clark, 2012
We found over a decade of neglect in compliance and enforcement program activities …
B.C. Auditor General, 2016
The muddy torrent that ripped down Mount Polley dam and turned gentle Hazeltine Creek into a toxic canyon also did something else: It swept away a decade of empty government boasts about environmental stewardship.
The recent Auditor General report on compliance and enforcement of the mining sector pulls no punches about the state of mine regulation: “The ministry is deficient in carrying out most of the expected regulatory activities. … On several occasions in the last 10 years, ministry staff told higher-level management that inadequate monitoring and inspection, due to insufficient staffing levels, was putting the province at risk.”
And risk became reality at Mount Polley. Auditor General Carol Bellringer was particularly damning on the province’s regulation of Mount Polley, stating: “We noted the same issues in the Mount Polley file as we did throughout the audit — that is, too few resources, infrequent inspections, and lack of enforcement.”
Perhaps most important, the Auditor General team concluded that at Mount Polley:
• Government failed to conduct the required geotechnical inspections of the dam every year;
• If inspections had been done, inspectors could well have identified problems and avoided the disaster.
The Auditor General’s highest-priority recommendation was that the Ministry of Energy and Mines needs to get out of the enforcement business — that government should create a truly independent enforcement agency to vigorously enforce the law.
Bellringer noted that the ministry can’t do this because of the inherent conflict in its dual role of promoting industry, and then regulating the same industry it boosts. Bellringer specifically noted that the ministry is “at risk of regulatory capture” — of serving industry interests instead of the public interest.
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