Prov­ince must stop sub­si­diz­ing pol­luters

Times Colonist - - Islander - CALVIN SANDBORN, AL­LI­SON SPROULE and UGO LA­POINTE Calvin Sandborn, QC, is le­gal di­rec­tor and Al­li­son Sproule a law stu­dent at the Univer­sity of Vic­to­ria En­vi­ron­men­tal Law Cen­tre. Ugo La­pointe is co­or­di­na­tor of Min­ing Watch Canada.

When the Mount Pol­ley Mine dam col­lapsed, a vast muddy tor­rent of pol­lu­tion pounded down Hazel­tine Creek into Ques­nel Lake. But that wasn’t the only ma­jor hem­or­rhage. The drain on your tax dol­lars is large, too — and could grow far larger. B.C. laws need to change to en­sure that pol­luters, not tax­pay­ers, pay for cleanup.

The B.C. gov­ern­ment has promised im­mi­nent re­form, but in­di­ca­tions are that the planned re­form will be wholly in­ad­e­quate.

Here’s the prob­lem. Min­ing can cause mas­sive da­m­age to en­tire wa­ter­sheds — some­times ex­ter­mi­nat­ing fish pop­u­la­tions per­ma­nently with acid drainage and toxic met­als. Yet min­ing com­pa­nies come and go, of­ten leav­ing en­vi­ron­men­tal dis­as­ters for tax­pay­ers to clean up.

That’s why fed­eral tax­pay­ers are pay­ing more than $700 mil­lion to clean up Yukon’s Faro Mine and more than $1 bil­lion to clean up the North­west Ter­ri­to­ries’ Gi­ant Mine. In B.C., tax­pay­ers have paid more than $50 mil­lion to clean up the Bri­tan­nia Mine, and mil­lions more for the Mount Wash­ing­ton mine that wiped out Tsolum River sal­mon runs. Just last Novem­ber, B.C. tax­pay­ers be­gan the long process of clean­ing up the pol­lu­tion at the bank­rupt Tulse­quah Chief Mine — which threat­ens one of North Amer­ica’s great sal­mon wa­ter­sheds.

Mean­while, at Mount Pol­ley, tax­pay­ers have al­ready sub­si­dized the cleanup by al­most $40 mil­lion — in di­rect gov­ern­ment costs and tax breaks. And if Im­pe­rial Met­als goes bank­rupt (as some have pre­dicted), B.C. tax­pay­ers could pay many ad­di­tional mil­lions for years to come.

This is why ra­tio­nal gov­ern­ments re­quire min­ers to put up ad­e­quate se­cu­rity be­fore­hand to pay for ul­ti­mate cleanup. And this is why the B.C. au­di­tor gen­eral sounded the alarm two years ago — warning that B.C. was not get­ting ad­e­quate se­cu­rity from com­pa­nies to clean up mines. The au­di­tor gen­eral noted that gov­ern­ment se­cu­rity re­quire­ments left B.C. tax­pay­ers with more than a bil­lion dol­lars in un­funded tax­payer li­a­bil­ity.

Other gov­ern­ments do bet­ter. For ex­am­ple, Alaska, Que­bec and the Yukon re­quire mines to put up se­cu­rity for 100 per cent of reclamation costs. The con­trast with the lax B.C. sys­tem couldn’t be more strik­ing. One com­pany has posted 100 per cent se­cu­rity for reclamation costs for its mine in Alaska — but in B.C., the same com­pany’s mine se­cu­ri­ties run sev­eral hun­dred mil­lion dol­lars short of full reclamation costs.

Note that Que­bec com­pa­nies used to be able to avoid full cleanup guar­an­tees in a sim­i­lar way. Then in 2013, Que­bec’s au­di­tor gen­eral pointed out the same risk to tax­pay­ers that our au­di­tor gen­eral has iden­ti­fied. Now Que­bec re­quires com­pa­nies to post 100 per cent se­cu­rity shortly af­ter open­ing a mine.

That’s the strong “pol­luter pays” ap­proach we need. But the B.C. gov­ern­ment con­sul­ta­tion on Mine Reclamation Se­cu­rity Pol­icy in Novem­ber sug­gests that we can ex­pect lit­tle more than the sta­tus quo — with a bit of tin­ker­ing. In the end, gov­ern­ment ap­pears likely to al­low cer­tain com­pa­nies to con­tinue to post less than 100 per cent se­cu­rity for mine reclamation.

This is not just prob­lem­atic for tax­pay­ers. It also di­rectly threat­ens B.C.’s rivers and lakes, its sal­mon and trout. The fail­ure to re­quire full se­cu­rity en­cour­ages com­pa­nies to cut cor­ners on en­vi­ron­men­tal pro­tec­tion — since they have less money on the line.

On the other hand, re­quir­ing full cleanup se­cu­rity is a pow­er­ful in­cen­tive for greener mine op­er­a­tions. When full se­cu­rity is re­quired, com­pa­nies are re­warded for adopt­ing green tech­nolo­gies — by re­duc­ing en­vi­ron­men­tal risk, they re­duce their out­lay for se­cu­rity de­posits.

A re­lated is­sue that gov­ern­ment must ad­dress is the com­mon prac­tice of com­pa­nies “low­balling” es­ti­mated reclamation costs — to shave the se­cu­rity they have to de­posit. Gov­ern­ment must re­quire a strict in­de­pen­dent re­view of com­pany es­ti­mates, be­fore se­cu­rity amounts are fi­nal­ized.

Fi­nally, gov­ern­ment must act to pro­tect in­no­cent par­ties from pol­lu­tion ac­ci­dents. Cur­rently, when a mine pol­lutes and goes broke, Indige­nous peo­ple and neigh­bours — such as lodge own­ers, guide out­fit­ters, shell­fish grow­ers and fish­ers — are likely out of luck. They can’t get com­pen­sa­tion for their losses, and this is not right. Pol­luters should pay, not in­no­cent vic­tims. Gov­ern­ment can achieve jus­tice by re­quir­ing mines to carry suf­fi­cient in­sur­ance — and con­trib­ute to an in­dus­try fund — to com­pen­sate vic­tims of pol­lu­tion.

For decades, reg­u­la­tion of B.C. min­ing has been no­to­ri­ous for serv­ing in­dus­try — at the ex­pense of the pub­lic in­ter­est. Gov­ern­ment’s new reclamation pol­icy will tell us if any­thing has re­ally changed.

Aug. 15, 2014: The dam for the pond that stores toxic waste from the Mount Pol­ley Mine broke, spilling its con­tents into Hazel­tine Creek and Ques­nel Lake near the town of Likely.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Canada

© PressReader. All rights reserved.