One important factor absent from the coverage of auditor general Carol Bellringer’s scathing report on the failings of the province’s mine monitoring is the role of First Nations in providing solutions.
Bellringer’s report vindicates what B.C. First Nations have been saying for years — the Ministry of Energy and Mines and the Ministry of Environment fail to protect British Columbians from environmental risk. Monitoring of mine projects is weak and taxpayers are on the hook for damages because liability funding is woefully inadequate.
The auditor general calls for independent monitoring. First Nations are in the perfect position, with capacity building and training assistance, to provide this service through shared decision-making on permitting, and direct participation in independent monitoring and enforcement, through our own environmental Guardians programs.
Then there is the matter of taxpayers being on the hook for up to $1 billion in unfunded liabilities for mine remediation. That liability can only increase as new projects come on line.
This risk was pointed out last year in the First Nation’s Energy and Mining Council’s report on the threat of mining to northeastern B.C.’s watersheds. That report called, among other things, for a “superfund” to be created to ensure taxpayers are not left to pick up the tab for accidents and to make sure remedial work is done.
First Nations have not been waiting for the B.C. government to wake up. For example, the North Shuswap Tribal Council has already enacted its own detailed mining policy and tool kits, and others are following suit. We know that while ensuring only the right projects proceed in the right way is crucially important, so is ensuring that existing or future mines operate under the conditions laid down for them, that the effluents and other environmental impacts are properly monitored, and that remediation work is done.
Our First Nations know their lands and waters. We have a totally vested interest in ensuring they are protected as we are the ones on the front lines if anything goes wrong, as it did with Mount Polley.
If Mines Minister Bill Bennett and his government genuinely accept the auditor general’s report and want to respond in a meaningful way, they should immediately begin working with our First Nations to help them build the capacity and gain the training to set up Guardian programs.
Bev Sellars is chair of B.C.’s First Nations Women Advocating Responsible Mining.