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Comment: Mines minister must not ignore his own experts

“The panel firmly rejects the notion that business as usual can continue.

“The panel firmly rejects the notion that business as usual can continue.”

— Mount Polley Expert Review Panel

In all the fuss about the execution of search warrants in the Mount Polley Mine disaster case, we shouldn’t lose sight of the main issue — how do we prevent the next disaster?

Indeed, Mines Minister Bill Bennett commissioned the Mount Polley expert panel “to ensure this never happens again.” So why is the minister dodging commitment to the panel’s most important recommendation? Why has he failed to endorse that vital recommendation — and shuffled it off to bureaucrats for extended “review”?

Here’s the issue: The panel noted that more tailings lakes and ponds will inevitably fail — and recommended that the province move to eliminate such water impoundments across the province, in both new and closed mines. Criticizing construction of tailings ponds as “century-old technology,” they called for dry disposal of tailings.

The panel pointed out a central problem: For tailings lakes to work, everything has to go right, all the time and forever. But human error inevitably intervenes. For example, the panel exposed the incompetent ad hoc management of the Mount Polley tailings lake.

Furthermore, contrary to the government’s spin, the dam was not doomed by a single invisible flaw that inspectors could not see. The panel concluded that the Mount Polley dam was actually failing in three different ways:

The panel was disconcerted to find that, while the Mount Polley tailings dam failed because of an undetected weakness in the foundation, it could have failed by overtopping, which it almost did in May 2014. Or it could have failed by internal erosion, for which some evidence was discovered.

Clearly, multiple failure modes were in progress, and they differed mainly in how far they had progressed down their respective failure pathways.

Such dam failures are simply inevitable. The panel pointed to the 123 tailings dams across the province and predicted that every decade, two of them will fail. Worse still, many of those facilities contain toxic acid mine drainage, which would cause dramatically worse and more permanent damage than Mount Polley.

That is why the panel made its most significant recommendation — calling on the province to discard archaic tailings-dam technology.

Unfortunately, the province has lagged behind on this issue. While much of the world has moved toward modern alternatives — with tailings technology such as dry stacking established in Alaska, Chile and other places — B.C. has not.

The province has continued to routinely approve tailings lakes. Indeed, this month a tailings lake will begin to fill at the Red Chris Mine — operated by the same company that brought us the Mount Polley disaster. Yet a technical report paid for by Imperial Metals recently acknowledged that any failure of the Red Chris impoundment will likely have a much more significant environmental impact than the Mount Polley failure.

The sticking point is cost. Industry claims dry disposal is too expensive. But Bennett’s expert panel rejected that argument, pointing out that dam failures can impose massive environmental damage and cost hundreds of millions.

Studies show that dry technologies are cost-competitive in the long-term, compared to the cost of maintaining dams for centuries, a tab that taxpayers are likely to pay. Proper disposal at the outset will save taxpayers massive maintenance and cleanup costs.

Historically, Canadian taxpayers have had to pay the bills for mine-industry damage — $400 million each for the Giant Mine and the Faro Mine, and $69 million for the Britannia Mine. Fish returned to the Tsolum River only after B.C. taxpayers paid for mine remediation. This kind of drain on taxpayers must stop.

Most important, we simply cannot afford to have “loaded guns” on major watersheds throughout the province — especially ones that could permanently destroy fisheries in some areas. The panel’s conclusions are apt:

• While economic factors cannot be neglected, neither can they continue to pre-empt best technology.

• The panel does not accept the concept of a tolerable failure rate for tailings dams.

• First Nations will not accept this, the public will not permit it, government will not allow it and the mining industry will not survive it.

The minister must act immediately to protect our wild salmon and trout, eagles and bears. He must act to protect our pristine streams and sparkling lakes. He must act to protect taxpayers. And — whether he realizes it or not — he must act to protect the long-term survival of the B.C. mining industry.

Calvin Sandborn and Mark Haddock are supervising lawyers at the University of Victoria Environmental Law Centre, and Jamie Arbeau is a law student at the centre.

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