Bennett should implement the Auditor General’s recommendations post- haste or resign
Perceptions by Gerry Warner
Should Mines Minister Bill Bennett resign? Of course, he should! He’s deliberately deceived the public about the Mt. Polley mine disaster from day one and continues to do so, albeit in a more subdued manner since the devastating Auditor General’s report was released this week.
In an interview with Canadian Press, Auditor General Carol Bellringer said the regulatory requirements of BC’s energy, mines and environment ministries are not being met leading to disasters like Mt Polley and the possibility of more. Bellringer said the ministries that oversee mining in the province are short of staff and resources resulting in inadequate inspections of hundreds of tailing dams in the province.
“Almost all of the expectations for a robust compliance and enforcement program were not being met,” she told CP. Bennett didn’t deny Bellringer’s assertion, responding, “we’re not backing away from this. The auditor general is correct.”
This was quite a comedown from how Bennett initially described the August 2014 Mt. Polley disaster, which dumped millions of cubic meters of mine waste into the pristine waters of Quesnel Lake, one of the major spawning routes for Fraser River salmon.
Back in 2014, Bennett downplayed the tailings pond breach which released the mineralized slurry that entered the lake. In a Aug. 10 interview with the Vancouver Sun, he compared the mine spill to avalanches of snow in the winter. “The difference is that snow melts, but you are left with exactly the same result.”
Even more incredibly, he denied that a mine tailings spill had ever occurred in BC before. “Tailing dams at operating mines have not ever failed in British Columbia before. This is the first time. It is hard to plan for something that never happened,” he said in a Cranbrook Townsman story Aug. 12, 2014 after saying the same thing to major news outlets in the Lower Mainland.
At the time of this bizarre statement, this writer did a quick Internet search which revealed in minutes that the International Commission on Large Dams listed six pages of tailing dam breaches around the world – close to 200 in all – with six of the breaches listed in BC including a major one in 1948 at the Sullivan Mine in Kimberley next door to Bennett’s riding. Talk to anyone that’s actually worked in the mining industry in BC – and this Cominco brat is one – and you’ll quickly find out that tailing dam breaches, though rare, do happen and leaks, are a relatively common occurrence. Only the major ones get mentioned in the media or investigated by the regulatory authorities.
Did the Minister of Mines not know this at the time? Or was he deliberately trying to deceive the public? That, dear reader, I’ll leave up to you. In a CBC radio interview May 5 Bennett again implied that tailing dam breaches had never happened before in the province, but acknowledged Mt Polley was a “disaster.” Is this an exercise in political damage control or a lame acknowledgement that he misled the public before? Again, I leave it up to you.
Whatever the case, some good has come out of this mess because the public now knows that the very people we elect and the ministries they and their bureaucrats operate have been falling down on a very important job, namely protecting us from an industry that’s always been highly secretive and a media not interested in penetrating this secrecy
Here’s how the auditor general put it; “We concluded the Ministry of Energy and Mines and Ministry of Environment Compliance and enforcement activities of the mining sector are inadequate to protect the province from significant environmental risk . . . almost all of the expectations for a robust compliance and enforcement program were not met.”
Bellringer also said the mining industry has not provided the government with enough financial security to pay for another Mt. Polley disaster. She added the government fund to handle this is short by more than $1 billion. And even as she spoke, MiningWatch, a watchdog agency that monitors the mining industry, was warning that other potential disasters loom caused by mines with inadequate tailing dams on the Stikine, Nass and Unuk Rivers that flow into Alaska and threaten the billion dollar Alaska and BC fishing industries.
So who do we believe? A mines minister with a shaky knowledge of the industry he’s regulating or the BC Auditor General? That’s a question all British Columbians should be contemplating.
Gerry Warner is a retired journalist who in his younger days worked in mines at Pine Point and Granisle as well as the Cominco smelter in Trail.