When the Mount Polley Mine dam collapsed, a vast muddy torrent of pollution pounded down Hazeltine Creek into Quesnel Lake. But that wasn’t the only major hemorrhage. The drain on your tax dollars is large, too — and could grow far larger. B.C. laws need to change to ensure that polluters, not taxpayers, pay for cleanup.
The B.C. government has promised imminent reform, but indications are that the planned reform will be wholly inadequate.
Here’s the problem. Mining can cause massive damage to entire watersheds — sometimes exterminating fish populations permanently with acid drainage and toxic metals. Yet mining companies come and go, often leaving environmental disasters for taxpayers to clean up.
That’s why federal taxpayers are paying more than $700 million to clean up Yukon’s Faro Mine and more than $1 billion to clean up the Northwest Territories’ Giant Mine. In B.C., taxpayers have paid more than $50 million to clean up the Britannia Mine, and millions more for the Mount Washington mine that wiped out Tsolum River salmon runs. Just last November, B.C. taxpayers began the long process of cleaning up the pollution at the bankrupt Tulsequah Chief Mine — which threatens one of North America’s great salmon watersheds.
Meanwhile, at Mount Polley, taxpayers have already subsidized the cleanup by almost $40 million — in direct government costs and tax breaks. And if Imperial Metals goes bankrupt (as some have predicted), B.C. taxpayers could pay many additional millions for years to come.
This is why rational governments require miners to put up adequate security beforehand to pay for ultimate cleanup. And this is why the B.C. auditor general sounded the alarm two years ago — warning that B.C. was not getting adequate security from companies to clean up mines. The auditor general noted that government security requirements left B.C. taxpayers with more than a billion dollars in unfunded taxpayer liability.
Other governments do better. For example, Alaska, Quebec and the Yukon require mines to put up security for 100 per cent of reclamation costs. The contrast with the lax B.C. system couldn’t be more striking. One company has posted 100 per cent security for reclamation costs for its mine in Alaska — but in B.C., the same company’s mine securities run several hundred million dollars short of full reclamation costs.
Note that Quebec companies used to be able to avoid full cleanup guarantees in a similar way. Then in 2013, Quebec’s auditor general pointed out the same risk to taxpayers that our auditor general has identified. Now Quebec requires companies to post 100 per cent security shortly after opening a mine.
That’s the strong “polluter pays” approach we need. But the B.C. government consultation on Mine Reclamation Security Policy in November suggests that we can expect little more than the status quo — with a bit of tinkering. In the end, government appears likely to allow certain companies to continue to post less than 100 per cent security for mine reclamation.
This is not just problematic for taxpayers. It also directly threatens B.C.’s rivers and lakes, its salmon and trout. The failure to require full security encourages companies to cut corners on environmental protection — since they have less money on the line.
On the other hand, requiring full cleanup security is a powerful incentive for greener mine operations. When full security is required, companies are rewarded for adopting green technologies — by reducing environmental risk, they reduce their outlay for security deposits.
A related issue that government must address is the common practice of companies “lowballing” estimated reclamation costs — to shave the security they have to deposit. Government must require a strict independent review of company estimates, before security amounts are finalized.
Finally, government must act to protect innocent parties from pollution accidents. Currently, when a mine pollutes and goes broke, Indigenous people and neighbours — such as lodge owners, guide outfitters, shellfish growers and fishers — are likely out of luck. They can’t get compensation for their losses, and this is not right. Polluters should pay, not innocent victims. Government can achieve justice by requiring mines to carry sufficient insurance — and contribute to an industry fund — to compensate victims of pollution.
For decades, regulation of B.C. mining has been notorious for serving industry — at the expense of the public interest. Government’s new reclamation policy will tell us if anything has really changed.
Calvin Sandborn, QC, is legal director and Allison Sproule a law student at the University of Victoria Environmental Law Centre. Ugo Lapointe is co-ordinator of Mining Watch Canada.