A scathing report on the mining industry by B.C. Auditor General Carol Bellringer is being received by First Nations with cautious optimism. It’s their hope that it will bring positive changes to protect the environment in their traditional territories.
In her May 3 report, “An Audit of Compliance and Enforcement of the Mining Sector,” Bellringer concluded that both B.C.’s Ministry of Energy and Mines and the Ministry of the Environment had failed to meet expectations in both compliance and enforcement.
“We found major gaps in resources, planning and tools. As a result, monitoring and inspections of mines were inadequate to ensure mine operators complied with requirements,” she wrote.
“Neither MEM nor MoE have adequately evaluated the effectiveness of their regulatory programs.”
In her report, Bellringer highlighted two specific and glaring local issues. The first being the disastrous Aug. 4 breach of the Mt. Polley tailings pond, which released 25 million cubic metres of toxic sludge into Polley Lake. The sediments then oozed through Hazeltine Creek and into Quesnel Lake and beyond.
The Mt. Polley copper and gold mine is owned and operated by Imperial Metals. The tailings pond breach has been acknowledged as one of the worst environmental disasters in Canadian history.
Chief Ann Louie of T’exelc (Williams Lake) First Nation welcomed the report. Louie has taken a lead role in demanding change at both Ministries.
“For me, it confirms everything I have said all along,” Louie told Windspeaker. “Our focus has always been on water quality. We were already in discussions about Mt. Polley at the time of the breach.”
Now the concern is about the long-term contamination of both land and water.
“We’re not even sure of all the contaminants at this point. We are still waiting for detailed tests to determine the long-term toxicity.”
In the meantime, the mine has gone back into limited production, Louie noted. Tailings water is now flowing directly into Hazeltine Creek.
Water quality is also the primary concern for Ktunaxa First Nation, whose traditional territory includes the Elk Valley. The area is home to an extensive coal mining operation owned by Teck Resources.
In her report, Bellringer cited “dramatic annual increases of selenium” in the Elk Valley watershed, which should have raised alarm bells at the Ministry of the Environment. But instead: “MoE tracked this worsening trend, but took no substantive action to change it.”
In response to the report, B.C. Mines and Energy Minister Bill Bennett noted that in 2013, MoE directed Teck Coal to “to stabilize and reverse water quality concentrations for selenium, cadmium, nitrate and sulphate,” as part of an Area Based Management Plan.
In a statement provided to Windspeaker, Ktunaxa Nation Council Chair Kathryn Teneese said her Nation has worked closely with MoE on the Elk Valley Water Quality Plan, which includes both compliance and enforcement provisions.
“We think that significant progress is being made by MoE on ensuring compliance with the water quality plan, and we are monitoring the compliance situation closely to ensure that there continues to be progress in compliance with water quality requirements,” Teneese wrote.
But for Grand Chief Stewart Phillip of the Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs, the province has expended far too much energy on white- (“or green”) washing its systemic failures.
“Shortly after Mt. Polley, it was quickly acknowledged as a catastrophic event, with potentially disastrous long-term impacts on wild salmon runs that ultimately feed into the Fraser River,” Phillip told Windspeaker.
Phillip said his concern is that the province has conducted high-profile consultations with the most affected Nations, while ignoring the concerns of the almost 100 Nations that rely on the Fraser River system for sustenance.
On one thing, Louie and Phillip agree: immediately following the Mt. Polley spill, the province moved very quickly to set up meetings with the most affected Nations to organize a response to the spill.
Louie points to the Memorandum of Understanding that was forged between the Nations and the provincial government to implement a remediation strategy. The MOU required four days of intense negotiations with senior Ministry officials, she noted.
Phillip said he was summoned to Williams Lake while the negotiations were in progress, and the experience still rankles.
“By the time I got to Clinton (165 kilometres south of Williams Lake) I got a call from the CBC, asking me what I thought of the MOU,” he said.
He arrived to find out the MOU was a done deal.
“The First Nations Summit (Grand Chief Ed John) and the UBCIC were asked to be signatory to the agreement,” Phillip said, adding that he did so with misgivings.
“The MOU was used as a means of organizing in the aftermath of the spill. But it has a fatal flaw: it cut out the nearly 100 First Nations who live along the [Fraser] river and who will be affected by the spill for years to come.”
Louie acknowledges that the process was hasty and failed to engage a wider spectrum of involved Nations. But time was of the essence, and the result has been increased action on the part of the province.
“In our view, getting the MOU done led directly to the Mining Code Review undertaken by [MEM],” Louie said.
Phillip said another sore point has been Energy and Mines Minister Bill Bennett’s self-serving posturing in light of the AG’s report. Phillip said Bennett maintains that the report has cleared him and his ministry of any mishandling of the regulation and enforcement of the Mt. Polley mine.
In the meantime, Phillip said he and Ed John have faced accusations that they are complicit as MEM and MoE skirt full responsibility for their systemic failures, because they signed the MOU.
“There has been more than one occasion where I have felt like pulling out of the MOU,” he said. “I do not feel this is the way to bring Imperial Metals and the province to account. I do not want to be party to a cover-up. I am very mindful of what I attach my name to.”
In particular, Phillip believes Bennett should be held accountable, and that he should resign, as he originally promised, should he be found negligent in his handling of the ministry. But since the report, Bennett has, in effect, declared himself exonerated and has said he will stay on as Minister, Phillip said.
“In my view, there needs to be a lawsuit brought against Imperial Metals and the Province of British Columbia,” he concluded.
Both Louie and Teneese concur with Bellringer that the compliance and enforcement functions should be taken away from the Ministry of Energy and Mines. In its current configuration, the ministry functions as both cheerleader and enforcement officer.
“MEM seems to take its 'mining promotion' function very seriously with less attention paid to the effective regulation of mining, and particularly the compliance and enforcement function,” Teneese wrote. “This confusion of roles does indeed create a conflict of interest within MEM.”
On a positive note, Louie said since the Mt. Polley spill, there has been a greater recognition of the role First Nations can and should play in matters affecting the environment. Louie said since Mount Polley, cooperation between government and First Nations has improved markedly.
There has also been increased engagement between First Nations and the non-Aboriginal population.
“We saw that in Likely, in one of the early community meetings after the spill. [Non-Aboriginal participants] were not getting the answers they needed, so they felt they had to come to the First Nations. Because our rights are constitutionally protected, we do have more strength when it comes to dealing [with government], so it is something both communities have now taken a serious hard look at.”
Calling it a “life-altering situation,” Louie said of the effects of the Mt. Polley, the spill would continue to be felt for generations to come.
“I think this is a wakeup call for all concerned, where it comes to the mining industry – especially the permitting process,” she said.
Louie said mining development has become a critical issue for Indigenous peoples, and by extension, for all people, well beyond Mt. Polley.
“It’s not just our local First Nations. It’s all First Nations. And it’s not just something that’s happening in the Caribou. This is happening all over the world.”
With B.C. First Nations now assuming a greater role in managing the environment, they have raised the bar for Indigenous peoples facing exploitation, Louie believes.
“It says the hard work needs to continue for the stewards of the land.”