‘Heads need to roll’: Five years after Mount Polley mine disaster, prospect of charges stirs hope for justice by Ainslie Cruickshank, July 4, 2019, Star Vancouver
VANCOUVER—It’s been almost five years since 25 million cubic metres of tainted water and debris poured into fish-bearing waters in British Columbia, and those who bore witness are cautiously optimistic that charges could finally be laid.
On Aug. 4, 2014 the tailings dam at Imperial Metal’s Mount Polley mine breached, and 10,000 Olympic-sized swimming pools of waste rushed into Polley Lake and Hazeltine Creek, flowing from there into Quesnel Lake. The area is about 100 km northeast of Williams Lake by road.
It was one of the largest mining disasters in Canadian history. The company has faced no charges so far. [It’s the Canadian Rape & Pillage for Profit way.]
“Heads need to roll over Mount Polley,” said Bev Sellars, a former chief of the Xat’sull First Nation, which was affected by the disaster.
“A message needs to be sent to all resource extractors that things have to change. I mean, we’re in dire straights here.”
Imperial Metals did not immediately respond to Star Vancouver’s request for comment.
A joint federal and provincial task force has finished its investigation into the disaster. Now, the decision to lay charges is in the hands of the Public Prosecution Service of Canada.
[Who other than Ernst investigated the law violations by Encana/AER/Alberta Environment (led by now Chair of NEB Peter Watson)? Any action other than cover-up and lies by the authorities, including the courts?]
The prosecution service is facing an Aug. 4 deadline — exactly five years since the spill — to lay summary charges under the Fisheries Act.
“We’re cautiously hopeful that Imperial Metals will finally be held accountable for this disaster,” said Kai Nagata, energy and democracy director with the B.C. environmental organization Dogwood, in an email on Wednesday.
“Tens of thousands of British Columbians and people across Canada wrote letters and signed petitions to (Fisheries and Oceans Canada) and Minister (Jonathan) Wilkinson demanding that he not let the deadline expire.”
However, an Environment and Climate Change Canada spokesperson told Star Vancouver last year that there are no time limits to lay a more serious charge for an indictable offence. [So when will Encana, AER and Alberta Environment be charged for their crimes!?]
Meanwhile, the professional governing body Engineers and Geoscientists British Columbia is working to schedule disciplinary hearings for three engineers in relation to the Mount Polley breach. [Pfffft! Like Law societies and APEGA, they protect their own. More mirage to fool Canadians into thinking someone is minding legal and engineering shops.] An independent expert engineering panel that investigated the breach found major concerns with the design of the tailings dam.
To date, the largest penalty for an environmental offence in Canada was issued in December 2014 after Bloom Lake General Partner Limited pleaded guilty to 45 charges under the Fisheries Act.
The charges related to a number of incidents at the Bloom Lake mine site in Quebec, including a tailings dam breach that saw 200,000 cubic metres of waste released into fish-bearing waters. The company was ordered to pay $7.5 million in penalties. [Did the company pay?]
Over the last few years, Sellars worried at times that nothing would be done about the much larger tailings spill at the Mount Polley mine. When Sellars brought private charges against the company and the BC Prosecution Service stayed them, she was “really worried.”
“If Mount Polley gets away with it, then other mining companies are going to take note,” she said. [Oil, gas and mining companies have been getting away with crimes for decades, enabled by “regulators” and other authorities]
Research is still underway to fully understand the consequences of the mine disaster for the ecosystems affected. One study published in the journal Scientific Reports found differences between the bacteria in sediments from areas of Quesnel Lake that were disturbed by the disaster and bacteria in areas that weren’t affected.
Some people no longer drink water from Quesnel Lake, Sellars said.
Jacinda Mack, another member of the Xat’sull First Nation, told the Star last summer that many people have stopped fishing from the Quesnel system, even though Interior Health said the fish are safe to consume. Sellars said she refused to eat fish from nearby waterways even before the spill for fear of pollution.
“We need justice. Something needs to be done,” said Christine McLean, a member of the Concerned Citizens of Quesnel Lake. The group is currently appealing a 2017 permit that allows the mine to discharge wastewater into the lake.
Michael Goehring, the CEO of the Mining Association of British Columbia, said regulation of the mining sector was strengthened significantly in the wake of Mount Polley. Earlier this year, for instance, the province announced additional resources to increase mine inspections. [Pffft! A few nice sips of whiskey with mine owners while promising to avoid areas that need inspection?]
A spokesperson for the Ministry of Energy, Mines and Petroleum Resources added that the province is also working on an updated mine security policy to ensure there is enough funding available to reclaim mines at the end of their life. [Ha~! What a farce! How many years will it take for the “policy” to be completed? 45?]
But Goehring warned “there’s a fine balance with that increased regulatory oversight and competitiveness of the sector” and urged the province to consider competitiveness with any new regulations it may be contemplating.
Calvin Sandborn, the legal director of the Environmental Law Centre at the University of Victoria, condemned the “terribly weak” laws regulating the mining sector in B.C. [Much weaker for oil and gas]
“Mining has the capacity to do tremendous damage,” Sandborn said. [So does and has oil and gas]
“There are some pretty serious consequences if you don’t get it right, and British Columbia is far from getting it right.”
Ainslie Cruickshank is a Vancouver-based reporter covering the environment. Follow her on Twitter: @ainscruickshank
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