Five years after Mount Polley disaster, taxpayers still on hook for cleaning up mining accidents

B.C. is supposed to have a polluter-pay policy, but that’s not the reality on the ground according to experts

Red Chris Mine Tailings Pond
View of the north dam and lower seepage collection dam at the Red Chris mine, owned by Imperial Metals, in northwestern B.C. Photo: Garth Lenz / The Narwhal

s been five years since the Mount Polley tailings dam burst and spilled 24 million cubic metres of mining waste into critical salmon habitat in the Fraser River watershed, but B.C. hasn’t learned its lesson, according to a new report released on Tuesday.

If another mining accident happened today, B.C. taxpayers would still be at risk of paying the clean-up bill according to the report released by the First Nations Energy and Mining Council, which calls on the B.C. government to compel mining companies to provide funds for cleanup.

“The lack of financial assurance for mining disasters is a serious policy gap in British Columbia — one that increases the risk of another Mount Polley,” said report author and economist Jason Dion. “By implementing smart financial assurance requirements, B.C. can better protect the public while still ensuring a thriving mining sector in the province.”

The cost of cleaning up B.C.’s abandoned mine sites was pegged at more than $500 million in 2016.

Financial assurance is a system of ensuring funds are available to pay for a cleanup even if a company goes bankrupt. It screens out companies that can’t afford the risk of their own projects.

British Columbia currently relies on a phased system of financial assurance, in which companies do not have to put up the full estimated clean-up cost up front; companies can rely in part on the value of the untapped commodities in the ground, an approach that is vulnerable to commodity swings, company bankruptcies and technological innovations at competing mines elsewhere in the world, Dion says.

Two tailings dam failures expected each decade under current regulations

The expert panel that reviewed the cause of the Mount Polley mine disaster warned B.C. can expect two dam failures every 10 years unless mining laws are updated. Nearly five years later, no fines and no charges have been laid against the mine’s owner Imperial Metals, which is now on precarious financial ground. One economist has estimated that British Columbians are on the hook for a $40 million clean-up bill for the Mount Polley disaster.

“B.C. has a polluter-pay policy under its Environmental Management Act, but that’s not the reality on the ground,” said Allen Edzerza of the First Nations Energy and Mining Council.

“By accepting our recommendations, the government would not only ensure that polluters pay when there are disasters, it would also reduce the risk of another Mount Polley by giving mining companies a financial incentive to reduce risk in their operations.”

The recommendations would bring the mining sector into line with other heavy industrial sectors – pipelines, offshore oil and gas production, tanker traffic and nuclear power generation – which must provide financial security against the risk of disaster, in many cases up to $1 billion, according to the report.

A June report from the First Nations Energy and Mining Council found that British Columbia does not need to reinvent the wheel in terms of mining rules. It can emulate other jurisdictions such as Quebec and the United States. MORE