No charges under B.C.’s mining laws for failure of Mount Polley mine dam

Vancouver Sun

By Gordon Hoekstra, Vancouver Sun, December 17, 2015

No charges will be issued under the province’s mining laws against Imperial Metals after the catastrophic failure of its Mount Polley gold and copper mine tailings dam.

B.C.’s chief inspector of mines decided not to forward charges to Crown counsel involving the Aug. 4, 2014 incident.

“Although there were poor practices, there were no non-compliances we could find,” B.C. chief inspector of mines Al Hoffman said Thursday in releasing a report into the investigation, which took more than a year.

The province said Hoffman had advice from the B.C. Ministry of Justice in making his decision.

There will also be no fines issued because B.C.’s mining laws do not allow for administrative penalties, as do other natural resource ministries and agencies such as WorkSafeBC.

Hoffman said he didn’t believe the company was getting “off the hook” because it already had to spend $70 million on cleanup at the mine site in the Interior, about 100 kilometres northeast of Williams Lake.

He made 19 recommendations to ensure, he said, another dam collapse does not occur. Those include that a dam safety manager be designated at mine sites and that mines be required to appoint independent review boards as a second pair of eyes on dam designs and operation. He also recommended establishing a dedicated investigation and enforcement team within the mines ministry led by a newly-created position of deputy chief inspector of mines.

B.C. Energy and Mines Minister Bill Bennett said all 19 recommendations will be implemented and he will be requesting government funding to backstop the changes.

Bennett also said he hopes to introduce legislation this spring to give the mines ministry the power to levy administrative penalties to encourage compliance, which is not among the recommendations from the mines inspector.

Imperial Metals officials said they would not be responding to the investigation report until they’ve had a chance to read and digest it.

The decision to not forward charges was met with disbelief and disappointment by the NDP and environmental groups.

The fact that there is no consequence under B.C.’s mining laws for the Mount Polley dam collapse is a regulatory failure, said NDP mining critic Norm Macdonald.

He said the government’s reliance on professional engineers hired by companies is not working, and it is time for the province to take more control of safety.

Northern Confluence director Nikki Skuce said the investigation’s outcome shows B.C.’s regulatory system is completely inept.

“Obviously B.C.’s mining regulations and laws are too weak if the main conclusion drawn is that it was the soil’s fault,” she said.

MiningWatch Canada coordinator Ugo Lapointe said they want to see the chief inspector of mines deliver the file to Crown counsel so they can make a decision on charges.

The chief inspector’s investigation found the cause of the failure was a design problem that failed to account for a weak glacial soil layer beneath the foundation of the dam.

His investigation also found other factors including the slope of the perimeter embankment, inadequate water management, insufficient beaches and a sub-excavation at the outside toe of the dam exacerbated the collapse of the dam and the ensuing environmental damage.

Noting the mine did not operate using best practices, Hoffman said the company could not pass off responsibility of dam management to its engineers.

The chief inspector’s finding is similar to that of a B.C. government-appointed engineering panel that delivered its conclusions and recommendations last January.

Bennett, the mines minister, said he believed implementing both sets of recommendations would create significant improvement in regulatory oversight.

“I think when we are done, I think we are going to be able to say we learned from a horrible experience and we’ve made it a lot better,” Bennet said in an interview.

The remaining investigation into the Mount Polley dam failure is being conducted by the B.C. Conservation Officer Service and the federal government’s Department of Fisheries over potential violations of environmental laws.

It’s expected to be completed next year — and could result in charges or fines.

The mining industry in B.C. and Canada was shaken by the Mount Polley dam failure, one of the largest failures in the past 50 years, which released millions of cubic metres of water and finely ground rock containing potentially toxic metals.

It sparked concerns among the public, environmental groups and First Nations that aquatic life would be harmed, particularly salmon that use the Quesnel Lake system to spawn. Studies on the effect of the spill are expected to continue for years.

The catastrophic collapse last month of a tailings dam at a Brazilian mine owned by global mining heavyweights BHP Billiton and Vale SA has only exacerbated concerns.

[email protected]