Comment: It’s time for B.C. to modernize its mining act

From Pender Island to Tofino, local governments across Vancouver Island are dealing with controversial mineral claims that may have far-reaching impacts on their communities.

Yet B.C.’s antiquated mining laws mean that municipalities and regional districts have little say over mining projects that affect them, even if these projects have a negative impact on other job-creating sectors such as tourism and agriculture.

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As municipal leaders from across Vancouver Island gather in Sooke this week for the annual meeting of the Association of Vancouver Island and Coastal Communities, they will have an opportunity to consider a resolution put forward by Tofino council that urges the B.C. government to modernize our antiquated Mineral Tenure Act.

For more than 150 years, B.C.’s gold-rush-era mining laws have granted special treatment to the mining sector at too a high price for communities and B.C. taxpayers.

B.C.’s Mineral Tenure Act is based on the “free entry” system that has been abandoned by many other jurisdictions, including Alberta. Free entry allows miners to pay a minimal fee to stake a claim virtually anywhere in B.C., without first consulting or obtaining approval from the B.C. government, First Nations or local governments. Once a mineral claim is registered, it creates a legal entitlement that overrides other land uses.

In other words, the law precludes municipalities and regional districts from making decisions about the type of development they want and don’t want in their own communities. The free-entry system is therefore an obstacle to sound regional and community planning, and the root cause of much of the conflict we see around mining today in B.C.

When an area in B.C. is deemed to be of such high ecological importance that a park or reserve is created and mining is banned, mineral-exploration companies may be legally entitled to compensation, and companies frequently demand multimillion-dollar payouts even where there is not yet any mine in operation. For example, B.C. paid $30 million to a uranium company that held mineral claims in the Kelowna-Kamloops area prior to B.C.’s decision to ban uranium mining. The payout was substantially more than an independent evaluator found that the claims were worth. That expense is borne by taxpayers, since compensation for mining disputes is paid out to mining companies by the provincial government.

With this resolution, Tofino is inviting a conversation on how we can do better.

Unlike some issues, this one is actually relatively easy to solve. In fact, we’re already on our way. In February, the District of Tofino approved a unanimous resolution calling for a process to begin reforming our gold-rush-era mineral tenure laws. I hope the resolution doesn’t end there and is discussed and unanimously approved by my colleagues and neighbours at the upcoming AVICC meeting. From there, it would be considered by all B.C. communities at the provincewide Union of B.C. Municipalities convention in the fall.

A modernized B.C. Mineral Tenure Act would designate some common-sense areas that are off-limits to mineral claims and leases, such as private and residential lands, dedicated community amenities such as recreational areas, watersheds, fish-bearing waterways, ecologically sensitive areas, private conservation lands and other areas incompatible with mining for environmental, First Nations or health reasons.

This would ensure that mining operations don’t get a free ride from land-use planning requirements that apply to other industries.

Most important for me and all local governments, a revamped act would ensure that we are part of discussions early in the process so that local issues are considered before mineral rights are granted and taxpayers are on the hook for compensation.

The B.C. Environmental Assessment Office indicates 26 mine proposals are in process, three under review and 23 in the pre-application stage. Such a rapid expansion of mining activity places local governments in a quandary.

Mining offers significant opportunities for local communities, bringing potential jobs, development and growth. On the other hand, mining operations can also affect communities in adverse ways, from compromising drinking water and air quality to reducing property values.

Local governments are not opposed to mining. But many, if not all, of us are categorically opposed to 150-year-old legislation that unnecessarily pits different sectors and interests against one another while exacting a potential cost none of us can afford.

Mining in B.C. is booming. In the right regulatory and legislative framework, we can work to ensure that any benefits from such a boom are maximized while conflict and cost are minimized.

Josie Osborne is mayor of Tofino.

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