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