Mine spill leaves legacy of uncertainty for Christy Clark

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It’s going to take a long time to clean up the Mount Polley mine spill and maybe even longer for the affected area to heal from the trauma.

But the blame game from the Aug. 4 disaster? That could be the most epic saga of all.

Who dealt this mess? What impact will it have on the B.C. mining sector? And what does it mean for Christy Clark’s gung-ho agenda for mining, natural gas and other resource extraction?

Critics are already pointing fingers at provincial cutbacks, saying the governing Liberals drastically cut the number of mine safety inspections.

In 2001, the year the Liberals took office, there were 2,025 mine inspections conducted by government regulators. By 2012, the number had been slashed by more than half, to just 875 inspections.

Compounding those numbers is the fact there are more mines now than there were before. There were 15 major mines operating in the province in 2001, compared to 18 today.

The government said most of those cancelled inspections were for less-risky sites such as gravel pits. But the opposition NDP still pounced on the numbers.

“The provincial government clearly has a lot to answer for,” said NDP mines critic Norm Macdonald. “The walls of a tailings pond are structures that should never fail. It’s like a bridge or building collapsing. And the government is ultimately responsible.”

While the New Democrats target the government, at least one former employee of the mine is blowing the whistle on his ex-bosses, saying he worried that too much waste water was being pumped too quickly into the pond.

Gerald MacBurney, a seven-year employee, says he wanted mine operator Imperial Metals to strengthen the earthen banks of the pond with tonnes of additional rock.

“They needed to put in five million tonnes around the dam,” he said. “I was just sick. You just know this was going to happen.”

But mines minister Bill Bennett said MacBurney’s opinion was not shared by the experts in charge.

“He’s an unhappy former employee,” Bennett told me. “I have to listen to the engineers and the biologists and the geo-technical experts. It’s their advice that I have to follow. And the advice I received was that the company was doing everything that they were supposed to be doing.

“We will find out if they weren’t.”

Some critics are already demanding an independent inquiry to get at the truth.

“He (MacBurney) needs to give his testimony,” said Calvin Sandborn, legal director of the Environmental Law Centre at the University of Victoria.

Sandborn said the reductions in mine inspections are reflected in the glaring lack of penalties for mining infractions.

“Between 2006 and 2010, there were only six Environment Ministry penalties against mines,” Sandborn said. “Five of those six penalties were less than $600. This is not a deterrent to ensure that people are in compliance.”

How will the government get at the truth? Premier Christy Clark has promised a vigorous investigation — but not a public inquiry.

“I don’t know that a long, drawn-out public inquiry is going to be the best way to get those answers,” Clark said.

There is a lot on the line here for Clark. She promised in last year’s election to rapidly expand the province’s resource economy.

To deliver on her vision, she must prove to the public that the expansion can be done safely. That will mean a thorough investigation of the Mount Polley spill — and an assurance that taxpayers won’t be burned by cleanup costs.

Clark, meanwhile, faces the additional challenge of reassuring dubious First Nations, who can block her plans with court challenges and land claims.

The first step for Clark: participating in a First Nations healing ceremony at the site of the spill, shortly before the government released early test results showing the water in Quesnel Lake was safe.

But that was quickly challenged, too.

“Those are very preliminary tests,” Sandborn said. “Those water tests are from a few spots. All you have to do is look at the aerial photographs. We’ve got a major disaster here.”

However preliminary, the encouraging water tests still gave Clark’s government some hope as a wild week came to an end.

“We may have dodged a bullet,” Bennett said, though the NDP made clear the political battle over this one was only just beginning.



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