BY JOHN HORGAN
Leader of B.C. New Democrats
BRITISH Columbians across the province value our pristine wilderness, our iconic salmon, our rivers, lakes and mountains. That’s why the devastating breach of the Mount Polley Mine tailings pond and dam last week has affected us all so deeply.
We can all empathize with the people directly affected in the region whose homes, businesses and way of life are potentially changed forever.
The massive spill of contaminated water and silt was perhaps the worst industrial accident in B.C. in my lifetime. I spent much of this week in Williams Lake and in Likely, B.C., meeting with the people whose lives were changed in an instant when the dam broke. While many of the details are still emerging, the one thing I am already certain of is that an independent inquiry into the disaster is needed.
The B.C. Liberals cannot allow another quiet internal investigation run by the premier’s closest advisors, as we have seen time and again in recent years.
As a starting point, the government needs to immediately release all records and reports on the development, monitoring, and enforcement of this tailings pond and dam so the public can start to see what’s been going on at the mine, and inside the government that is supposed to be overseeing natural resource development in B.C.
We elect our government to manage our resources and protect them. In this case, our government has failed, and needs take responsibility for that failure. They are responsible for compliance and enforcement, and on their watch those systems failed to prevent this disaster.
Though the full extent of the environmental impact is still being assessed, it is clear that this incident will have a serious effect on water in the region, and on wildlife both in the immediate area and beyond. With as much as 10 per cent of the sockeye run on the Fraser spawning in the Quesnel Lake area, there could be a tragic impact on salmon stocks in the future.
What we do know is that in 2011, an independent review of the mine recommended an effluent management strategy which was not adopted by Imperial Metals.
We also know that the B.C. Liberal government has made deep cuts to staff monitoring of mines and enforcement. The number of mine inspections in the province was slashed by half when the Liberals came to office in 2001.
And just a few years ago, the now-mining minister, Bill Bennett, himself expressed concerns about the widespread cuts, noting in November 2010, “I know the resource ministries are starving for resources.”
The residents around Quesnel Lake and Polley Lake, some of whom saw their businesses and livelihoods put in jeopardy or completely destroyed in a matter of minutes, deserve answers. Who was responsible for this disaster, and how will they be held accountable?
Until we can see the full government record on this mine, we won’t know the full story. And until that time, British Columbians – especially the people of Likely and across the Cariboo – will struggle to have confidence that their government is ensuring that industrial activity on the land base is being done in an appropriate way – a way that protects human health and the natural environment.
Building a strong economy means committing to balanced resource development. To get this balance right, we need to ensure that government is responsible and has the enforcement tools to ensure safe and sustainable development of our resources.
The B.C. Liberals need to take action today to not only support the people affected by this disaster, but also to ensure that another failure of this magnitude does not happen again.