Report: Government Failure to Adequately Address Tailings Pond Issues Exposes Environment and British Columbians to Continued Serious Risk of Mt Polley-Type Failures

Sierra Club British Columbia

VICTORIA—A report prepared for Sierra Club BC shows there is an ongoing and serious risk of tailings storage facility failures, highlighting the fundamental inadequacy of the B.C. government’s response to date.

Despite some positive steps by government, the report concludes the Expert Panel’s forecast of an average of two significant failures per decade in B.C. remains valid.

“The situation we have today is nothing less than a series of toxic time bombs at mining sites across B.C.,” said Sierra Club BC executive director Bob Peart. “To know inadequate government action will likely result in two tailings dam disasters per decade is absolutely unacceptable. The provincial government has put mining company profits before public and environmental health and safety.”

The analysis, conducted by Dr. David Chambers, president of the Center for Science in Public Participation, has been submitted to the provincial government.

Dr. Chambers’ review of the proposed changes compares concerns and recommendations raised by the government’s Expert Panel and B.C.’s Auditor General, with recently announced changes to mining regulations. It identifies significant shortcomings in the government response to the disaster.

The Expert Panel notably rejected the acceptability of business as usual for tailings dam design and maintenance, but the proposed reforms leave an ongoing and serious risk of tailings storage facility (TSF) failures.

Key areas of concern identified in the report include:

  • The way in which the Alternatives Assessments that guide mine proposals and permits are undertaken remains largely undefined. For example, it does not yet address the Expert Panel’s important recommendations to eliminate surface water from the impoundment or to deal with fundamental stability issues like saturation levels and compaction of tailings materials. This leaves the door wide open for site level costs to continue their present dominance of the rationale for choosing TSF design options.
  • In the application of Best Available Technology to TSF design, the Expert Panel clearly said that safety and physical stability should be the paramount consideration. However, there is nothing in the proposed changes that explicitly states that costs related to environmental and community impacts in the short and long term must be considered in “economics and financial feasibility” considerations.  It does not provide any guidance to drive a safety-first design approach. As a result companies can continue to legitimately employ a business-as-usual approach.
  • While the requirement for Independent Tailings Review Boards is a positive step, the current proposal states that an ITRB “provides non-binding advice and guidance, but does not direct the work or perform the role of the Engineer of Record.” There is no requirement to publicly disclose any ITRB recommendation that is altered, or not implemented, by either the mine or regulators. This lack of transparency and accountability significantly reduces the value of ITRB to reassure the public that dam safety is being taken seriously.
  • Importantly, especially in terms of the Auditor General’s report, there is still far too much latitude and discretion in terms of the financial sureties that are assessed and collected by the province. The ongoing lack of consistency and rigor in the process for reclamation and closure-related sureties continues to leave the Province—and hence the taxpayer—at significant financial risk.

There are some positives. Progress has been made in: enhancing the evaluation of potential failure modes of both operating and closed tailings facilities; and strengthening the requirements for the Engineer of Record and Independent Tailings Review Boards (ITRB).

“It’s all too clear that the government has failed to address the issues that led to the Mt. Polley disaster,” said Peart. “As a result, the people and the environment of B.C. remain at serious risk of future catastrophic failures. The government’s promise of requiring responsible mining has been sacrificed at the altar of mining company profits.”

The report can be accessed here: Comments on the Code Review Changes to Part 10 Mine Health Safety and Reclamation Code


Dr. David Chambers
[email protected]

Tim Pearson
Director of Communications, Sierra Club BC
[email protected]

About Dr. Chambers: Dr. Chambers has a strong technical background that makes him eminently qualified to provide this analysis.  He is president of the Centre for Science in Public Participation.  He has a Professional Engineer’s degree from Colorado School of Mines, a Master’s in Geophysics, and a PhD. in Environmental Planning from the University of California at Berkeley. Dr. Chambers recently published a major report on tailings dam safety internationally[1].  He has worked extensively throughout the North America for over 20 years and has been following the Mt. Polley situation to better understand the implications for the future of responsible mining policy and practices

[1] Risk-Public Liability-Economics of Tailings Storage Facility Failures, Lindsay Newland Bowker & David M. Chambers — July 2015