Auditor general Carol Bellringer landed hard on B.C.’s environment and energy ministers last month for slack compliance and enforcement in the wake of the Mount Polley tailings-dam failure.
The ministries accepted some of her recommendations about how to fix the system, but filed a batch of objections to her conclusions. They protested perceived suggestions that staff were letting the mining industry roll over them, and that they failed to disclose enough information about the dam failure.
Also disputed was the implication that if they’d done their jobs properly the failure wouldn’t have occurred, saying that flies in the face of the Mount Polley expert panel’s conclusions.
By the polite standards of public-sector bodies debating audit findings, the disagreements were profound. The big one is that ministries reject the notion they were deficient in protecting the environment, and they dismiss the idea that compliance and enforcement should be reorganized in a separate agency.
It fell to a committee of MLAs to sort out the argument this week, when both sides appeared — 12 senior officials, all told — before the public-accounts committee to make their cases.
Bellringer opened the showdown by noting how rare it is “that our process was as challenged as it was in this case.”
She eased off slightly on some points, denying that her report suggested staff weren’t enforcing regulations, or that they breached their disclosure duties.
But for the most part, her staff stuck to their guns, telling MLAs the Energy and Mines Ministry hasn’t focused on developing compliance and enforcement and most of its efforts are “devoted to supporting the development of mining through processing permits.”
They emphasized again the risk of “regulatory capture,” where the regulators wind up serving the needs of the industry.
“We found that the ministry exhibits most of the possible signs of regulatory capture,” audit director Ardice Todosichuk told the committee. She said there’s been a “decade of neglect” in the ministry’s enforcement and significant deficiencies in the environment ministry. Their work protecting the province is inadequate.
Those are fighting words.
Deputy Energy and Mines Minister Elaine McKnight, appointed last fall, answered back later.
“When I first became aware of that concern from the auditor general, I was quite concerned,” she said. “It’s a fairly serious allegation around regulatory capture.”
She pressed the case over numerous meetings and said: “I think where we landed was that there is a concern or there’s risk for regulatory capture, as opposed to there actually is.”
The ministry has focused on efficient permitting, but it hasn’t been at the expense of compliance and enforcement, she said.
Deputy Environment Minister Wes Shoemaker later told MLAs the government and the ministries still have many disagreements over the findings.
But he said: “What we have right now is not good enough, and that’s the point from which I start.”
That ministry’s oversight team is being beefed up and will almost triple in size, he said.
NDP MLA David Eby objected to the tone of the ministries’ responses, saying they now have dozens of recommendations for reform from multiple bodies. But they are defensive about them when they should be embracing them.
Referring to Alaskan concerns about a northern mine, he said: “I expected that … we would hear from a ministry that was significantly embarrassed by our international and domestic humiliation — frankly, for our misconduct on the mine file. Instead, something totally different, and a nitpicking of a key recommendation that promotion be separated from enforcement.”
Independent MLA Vicki Huntington also rapped the ministries, saying they don’t get the idea of regulatory capture.
“It’s so insidious. It’s so much a daily part of your environment that you don’t realize that you’re no longer at arm’s length,” she said.
McKnight said she gets complaints all the time from industry about her staff being challenging and difficult to work with. “So I have a fair bit of confidence that the staff are definitely doing their jobs.”
The government accepted nearly all of Bellringer’s recommendations because it had no choice — Mount Polley was a disaster for the ministry as well as the province.
But the main one — yanking mining oversight away from the mining ministry and setting up a more independent outfit — is still hotly contested inside government.