Government documents reveal Ontario was warned five years ago that scant regulations around the dams that contain mine tailings — a slurry of water, rock and chemicals — mean a disastrous spill is largely out of its hands
By Emma McIntosh, The Narwhal
Public servants warned an Ontario cabinet minister last year about a “high-risk” loophole in mine safety rules that required “urgent attention” to avoid environmental disaster, an internal document obtained by The Narwhal shows.
One year later, it appears the politician who received the warning, Ontario Minister of Mines George Pirie, did not act on the bureaucrats’ advice.
Mine waste, called tailings, is often stored in human-made facilities that those in the industry call ponds. When the dams that hold tailings fail, the consequences can be catastrophic: waterways that were nearly destroyed after the 2014 Mount Polley tailings disaster in British Columbia will need decades more to recover, and the 2019 collapse of a dam in Brazil killed 270 people. Because of the high risk associated with tailings dams, many jurisdictions around the world have rules targeted at keeping them safe.
In Ontario, however, successive governments have not fixed a gap in the province’s tailings dam rules despite being aware of it since 2017, according to the internal briefing document prepared for Pirie in June 2022 and released through freedom of information legislation. Premier Doug Ford’s Progressive Conservative government has been in power since 2018, preceded by the Liberals under Kathleen Wynne.
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