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British Columbia updates mining laws after 2014 Mt. Polley disaster

Regulators should oversee mine locations, not just operations, expert says, after release of report by chief inspector

In the wake of the 2014 Mount Polley mine disaster in British Columbia, Canada, which unleashed 10 million cubic meters of contaminated water into nearby waterways, the provincial government has started to update its mining laws based on a series of recommendations released last week from its chief mine inspector.

Many of the 19 recommendations concern the practices of mines that have already started operations. Among those are requiring more mine staff to oversee dam safety and water management, and creating an independent review board for mines that store waste in ponds.

But one expert told Al Jazeera that new regulations should also focus on how the locations of mines and their waste storage facilities are chosen. There are at least eight mines awaiting approval from the B.C. government, and any new regulations and laws would be applied to all of them.

The Mt. Polley breach resulted from failure of its tailings storage facility dam, experts have said, resulting in the 10 million-cubic-meters spil. Imperial Metals, the company operating the site, said it was not aware it had constructed its storage facility on an unstable foundation.

That is why Glenn Grande, lead author of “The Path to Zero Failures,” a report submitted to British Columbia’s Health, Safety and Reclamation Code review board in October, said more regulations were needed at the first step of the process: mining claims.

The mining claim system in British Columbia allows “anyone to stake a claim just about anywhere,” without carrying out studies of the site’s specific geologic and environmental characteristics, Grande said.

“That’s important because every Mt. Polley disaster … started as a mining claim,” he said.

The British Columbia government allows anyone who wants to stake a mining claim to do so by going online, paying a fee, and claiming any available site. Staking a claim via the web means it's easy to overlook freshwater resources or other environmentally sensitive areas that may be located nearby, because those staking the claim don't have to physically visit the site, Grande said.

In the case of Mt. Polley, the site of the mine’s tailings storage facility (TSF) — where slurry and other potentially toxic mine waste is stored in perpetuity — was not investigated thoroughly enough by the operating company's engineers, according to recommendations released last week by Al Hoffman, British Columbia’s Chief Inspector of Mines.

Hoffman found that Mt. Polley's TSF was built on an unstable foundation on glacial silt instead of bedrock. Eventually, the tailings pond was filled to the point where the dam walls holding the liquid failed, discharging the contaminated waste.

Hoffman acknowledged that Imperial Metals didn’t contravene any existing regulations, since current laws only require mining companies to have an expert look at the site — not to determine whether the TSF will be built on a solid foundation.

“We determined that while the mine did not contravene any existing regulatory requirements, its management and operational practices failed in a number of areas,” Hoffman said in a statement.

British Columbia also plans to introduce legislation in 2016 to add administrative penalties under the Mines Act. Under current laws, the provincial government cannot issue penalties for non-compliance, said David Haslam, a spokesman for the province’s Ministry of Energy and Mining. He added that it can shut down a mine through the cancellation of a permit or by pursuing prosecutions.

In the case of Mt. Polley, no charges were brought against Imperial Metals. The mine was located near the biggest freshwater fjord in British Columbia, and nearby rivers that serve as important salmon habitats that stretch to Alaska.

After the disaster, Imperial Metals president Brian Kynoch apologized and said the company took full responsibility for the spill, although the cause was not known at the time, CBC reported last year. An independent report commissioned by the government of British Columbia and released in January found that the TSF failed because of poor design and because it was built on an unstable foundation.

Imperial Metals also operates Red Chris, a B.C. mine that was approved this year by the provincial government after its TSF was subjected to three independent reviews.

The company had not responded to Al Jazeera's request for comment at the time of publishing.

There are 123 other TSF's at roughly 100 mining sites in British Columbia, Grande said. After the Mt. Polley breach, the province began a review of those facilities to ensure they were structurally sound. The results have not been released yet.

Critics have said the type of TSF used at Mt. Polley was partly responsible for the disaster. Mt. Polley stored its tailings in a pond, instead of another storage option known as “dry stacking,” in which the tailings are piled dry instead of being submerged in water. Dry storage would reduce risk to nearby communities and the environment by reducing the distance the contaminated waste could travel in case of any structural failure, experts have said.

While the government of British Columbia has said that dry stacking is among the best practices for mining waste storage, it says it cannot be used at all types of sites. “Considerations for selecting a tailings management option requires site specific measures to result in a stable and resilient tailings deposit; one size does not fit all,” Haslam said.

The Association of Professional Engineers and Geoscientists of British Columbia is developing guidelines for assessing dam sites for tailings ponds that will be released in spring 2016. “This will address the main cause of Mt. Polley,” Haslam said, referring to the unknown instability of the glacial foundation under its TSF.

The current Health, Safety and Reclamation Code has a few provisions related to tailings storage, Grande said. The monitoring and regulation of such facilities has largely been put on the shoulders of industry itself, he added.

That's why Grande is optimistic about the government’s focus on updating that code and mining legislation.

“The government and industry are showing a willingness to change, and industry is showing a willingness to change,” Grande said. “We need mining. I’m personally not against mining, but if we’re going to do this, then let’s do it with the inclusion of the best available technology and practices.”


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