Anna Johnston: Mount Polley mine tailings spill highlights risks of deregulation

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"Streamlining environmental regulatory review" and "reducing the regulatory burden on industry" are among the federal and B.C. provincial governments’ hottest buzzwords. 

As the Mount Polley mine tailings lake breach that occurred on Monday (August 4) demonstrates, however, deregulation of industrial activities that impact the environment is a gamble that can have devastating outcomes for local communities and the environment.

The magnitude of the impacts of the Mount Polley breach are still being assessed and it could be years before they are fully understood. What is immediately certain is that there will be profound and long-lasting effects on local, regional, and provincial economies, on livelihoods and communities, on fish, wildlife and ecosystems, and on British Columbians’ trust in regulators.

British Columbia has an economy, not to mention hundreds of communities, that depend on a healthy environment. It is rich in natural resources like fish, water, and forests, which provide billions of dollars in direct and indirect economic benefits to its citizens.

Project proposals abound in B.C., including for LNG facilities, pipelines, fish farms, and mines. Last week, the proposed KSM copper and gold mine received a green light from provincial regulators and now awaits federal approval. KSM would store 63 million cubic metres of tailings water, over a dozen times more than the slurry that spewed out from Mount Polley.

Risk is inherent in activities that impact the environment. From the threat of a dam breach, to an inevitable oil tanker spill, to cumulative contamination of wild salmon by fish farm pesticides, the environmental and economic costs of these impacts are ultimately borne by citizens, and in particular by the people who live and work in nearby communities.

To optimize the benefits of projects and minimize their risks, governments need strong environmental laws, combined with robust information and sufficient monitoring and staffing to ensure compliance. Canadians have a legitimate expectation that when government agencies approve projects like mines, dams, pipelines, and fish farms, they will safeguard key environmental, economic, social, heritage, cultural, and health values, and ensure adverse impacts are avoided or mitigated.

Despite this obligation, the federal government has been steadily divesting itself of responsibility for reducing the risks of those projects to Canadians.

In 2012, it enacted two omnibus budget bills that repealed and amended several of Canada’s oldest and strongest environmental laws. It watered down the Fisheries Act, significantly weakening protection of fish habitat and outright eliminating protection for some fish, including species at risk.

It also replaced Canada’s environmental assessment law with a new, weaker law that resulted in the cancellation of nearly 3,000 environmental reviews across the country. Projects that no longer require federal review include two open-pit coal mines near Elkford and Sparwood, B.C., an LNG facility near Kitimat, a mine extension in New Brunswick, and, somewhat ominously in the present context, a tailings pond and treatment facility, and expansions of two uranium tailings ponds, in Saskatchewan.

The rollbacks continue. Changes to the federal Navigable Waters Protection Act that were brought into force this year removed protection for over 99 percent of Canada’s lakes and rivers. Expected sometime this month are regulations that will make life easier for the aquaculture industry, but not for wild fish, by relaxing the regulation of the dumping of aquatic drugs and pesticides into wild fish habitat.

Touted as benefitting Canada’s economy, the federal environmental law rollbacks simply shift the load onto citizens, whose tax dollars will pay for emergency responses, cleanup costs, long-term impacts on water and fish, and related litigation and settlements. For local residents whose drinking water, recreation, and livelihoods are lost or damaged, the cost is even greater.

Environmental disasters like Mount Polley are a sobering reminder of the need for strong federal environmental laws to protect B.C. communities, the environment, and our economy from the risk of harm. 

Comments (4) Add New Comment
canada1967
Ms. Johnstone raises important points here. This is a terrible situation and there will be significant environmental and economic impacts from this event. The recent federal government changes are not directly attributable to this situation, but here are some things that may add a bit to what was written in this article.

In addition to the changes to the Fisheries Act, the federal government eliminated the Fisheries and Oceans Habitat Protection Program and launched a new program they call the Fisheries Protection Program. There is much more than a name change involved in this. 40 to 50% of the Habitat Protection positions were cut, and most staff were centralized to Nanaimo and Vancouver. This means there is significantly less oversight of development activity and staff are often not readily able to review and monitor work in the field. Two years ago there were Habitat staff in Williams Lake and Prince George, now there are none. In the past DFO would have been a significant part of the response to a situation like this - where are they?

The new DFO Fisheries Protection Program also has a much narrower mandate than the previous DFO Habitat Program. In the past, DFO would participate in planning development activity with other government agencies. Now DFO only reviews projects that proponents determine need an Authorization from DFO. There is no DFO input into the suitability of a location for a mine or a pipeline. The decisions have been shifted to development proponents and even the best ones are driven by profit - is this the way that Canadians expect their interests to be managed?

It is tragic that it takes a catastrophe like this to draw attention to these issues. Unfortunately there is a good chance that these problems will be out of sight-out of mind as the next election cycle comes around. In my view, it is reasonable to accept some risk to develop economic opportunity, but it should not be at any cost and there should be appropriate oversight to protect the public interest. The federal government has moved the bar so that too much is being left to industry, it can be turned around again if Canadians decide they want to.
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S Calbick
I love the way our illustrious mines minister describes the Mount Polley spill as being an "INCEDENT".According to the oxford dictionary, an "incedent" is "A" an event or occurance, "B" a minor or detached event attracting attention or noteworthy in some way. Some how, I think this "incident" has captured more attention then Billy,Christy or imperial metals realized.
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ex-Hanry guy
Everything you said here, Anna, was on target. Facts (How the hell, by the way, can anyone rate "thimbs down" for this article; what you wrote are facts-they're not opinions?) Other than CBC AM Radio, there seems to be a big silence regarding on the main media. How can those people, who must have friends and family not speak out against this Harper/Clark corporatocracy using only money as the sole value for everything? We don't have poloticians we have corporate lap dancers. They ought to all burn in hell. Thanks for your post.
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jeff chutskoff
hey christy if this was in your riding okanogan lake the national guard would have been called out!!!!!! instead we have 4 pleasure boats pulling boom sticks around and half of the people running those boats are under the age of 25,and a crew of 6 girls racking the beach!!!!! youve provided us with some real professional help to this disaster!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! oh and how is it that the mine is allowed to block a forest service road ????? could it be you dont want the real pictures and story to get out???? oh and by the way murray edwards is he not the owner of the calgary flames and the MAJOR SHAREHOLDER in imperial metals????? and is he not your MAJOR CONTRIBUTOR to the liberal party at election time lets see last time wasnt it like $485,000.00????? and you want to MAYBE FINE imperial a million dollars????? wow i bet that will hurt the bottom line!!!!!! christy your just gordon campbell in a bra and a thong!!!!! lying snake!!!!!
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