By KORIE MARSHALL
The wildfire that devastated Fort McMurray last week is a tremendous tragedy and it is a scary potential for any of us that live surrounded by forests. Wildfire is a natural process, and as much as we try to limit our exposure to the risk, we still see it sometimes destroy homes and communities.
But there are some incredible environmental risks that we create, and we have legislation to try to make sure those risks are managed, so we are not putting our environment and our communities at risk.
What happens when legislation doesn’t do its job?
I’m talking specifically about mining and energy in BC, a topic that may have gotten fewer headlines last week because of the evolving situation in Fort McMurray.
The Auditor General of British Columbia released a report on May 3rd on compliance and enforcement in BC’s mining sector. It’s a damning report for both the BC Ministry of Energy and Mines and the Ministry of Environment, saying the compliance and enforcement activities of both ministries are not set up to protect the province from environmental risks.
“Almost all of our expectations for a robust compliance and enforcement program were not met,” said Auditor General, Carol Bellringer, in a news release.
In a fairly lengthy news release of its own on the same day, the Ministry of Energy and Mines says it accepts most of the recommendations, but goes on to argue there is no evidence the government’s compliance and enforcement regimes place the environment at risk generally. It argues some of the audit report’s assertions are incorrect, and it does not agree with the main recommendation to reorganize the ministry’s compliance and enforcement programs into a separate ministry or agency.
The audit did look at the tailings dam failure at the Mount Polley mine – that occurred during the period the audit looked at – but there have been other reports already on the cause of that failure.
I heard Bill Bennett, Minister of Energy and Mines, argue on CBC radio last week that his ministry followed legislation, did its job in the case of Mount Polley. He said his ministry is not responsible for the failure, so he doesn’t intend to resign (as he said he would, if it was found the failure was the fault of his ministry).
Bennett says two investigations determined the dam failed because a layer of clay underneath the dam was not taken into account in the design of the dam, not because of the number of ministry staff on the ground, or the number of inspections.
I can see why the government would need to argue the audit results – there are liability issues, and two reports have already pointed at a cause other than the ministry’s work.
But I think the government is missing the point.
Bennett can argue his ministry did its job, followed the legislation, but if the legislation didn’t give the government the ability to recognize and address that layer of clay – then what is the point?
If the legislation doesn’t do its job, then whose fault is that? More importantly, what do we do about it?
It is all the more concerning because the Province is continuing to push ahead with plans to build another dam – actually a mega dam, for power generation – despite considerable opposition from many fronts. And this dam is planned for a sedimentary basin – the Peace River. If current legislation and inspections didn’t let them recognize the risk from a layer of clay at the bottom of a tailings pond, how will it ensure Site C is built properly? And if required maintenance on the Bennett Dam, upstream from Site C, has been delayed for so many years, how do we know what the risk is from something like a mis-judged or unknown layer of clay?
I know people here in Valemount and McBride are going out of their way to try to help the more than 80,000 who have been evacuated from Fort McMurray, and who still have no idea how long it will be before they can go home. Many don’t even know yet how much they’ve lost.
A natural disaster is terrible and difficult enough. I want to see our governments step up and make sure human-caused disasters, like the tailings pond failure at Mount Polley don’t ever happen again.