Is the mining industry too close to British Columbia's provincial government?
Mining Watch Canada thinks so, and it's calling on the province to set up an independent body to review how the sector is regulated, in light of the millions of dollars in political donations the industry has made over the past decade.
"There is a total lack of independence," claims the group's coordinator, Ugo Lapointe.
According to Dermod Travis with the non-partisan group Integrity B.C., the mining sector was the third-largest contributor to the B.C. Liberals between 2005 and 2015, after property developers and the forestry industry.
However, Integrity B.C.'s numbers show property developers donated more than twice as much money to the B.C. Liberals as the mining sector over that same period of time.
Mining Watch Canada says the donations are troubling given what it says is the sector's lax regulatory regime in B.C. and the environmental risks associated with mining — concerns the group highlighted in a letter sent to B.C. Premier Christy Clark on March 3.
"We express our deepest and greatest concerns regarding British Columbia's mining regulatory system, which despite recent government actions, is still in a profound state of dysfunction," Lapointe said.
The government moved to tighten regulations, oversight and safety requirements following the breach of the Mount Polley tailings pond in 2014.
"B.C.'s mining regulatory regime remains, in fact, one of the more problematic — if not the worst — in Canada when it comes to protecting the environment, communities, Indigenous peoples and taxpayers."
The letter reflects similar pleas from the University of Victoria's Environmental Law Centre and the Fair Mining Collaborative to establish a Judicial Commission of Public Inquiry to to investigate and improve how mining is regulated in B.C.
B.C. Mining Minister Bill Bennett refused to respond to requests for comment.
CBC News and Radio-Canada obtained a list of more than 41,000 mining licences, claims and leases in B.C. from the Ministry of Energy and Mines.
We cross-referenced companies with more than 10 licences, claims or leases in B.C. with information in the campaign contribution database maintained by Elections B.C.
Our analysis shows the companies gave more than $4.7 million in political donations to the governing B.C. Liberals over 10 years — more than 20 times what companies gave to the NDP over the same period of time, most of which was in 2013, just before the provincial election when the party was leading in the polls.
Donation amounts were calculated based on the parent companies.
We didn't include contributions from individuals because of the risk of including people not involved in the mining industry by mistake.
On a mobile device? Click here to see the top mining donors to each party.
Mining giant donates the most
Of the companies CBC News included in its analysis, Mining Watch Canada says two in particular illustrate its concerns.
Mining giant Teck is by far the largest contributor in the sector. It donated more than half of the $4.7 million in political donations between 2005 and 2015..
"The Teck example is particularly revealing," Lapointe said.
"It's also the company with the most mines in the province. Many environmental problems are linked to those mines."
Teck told CBC News it has been open and transparent about its political contributions, which are publicly posted each year.
Responding by email to a request for comment, the company said it supports "government policies that encourage job creation, sustainable development and economic growth."
Growing company's donations
The other company from our analysis referenced by Mining Watch was Pretium Resources, which donated $75,430 to the B.C. Liberals in 2015, the same year it received various levels of permits for its Brucejack gold mine north of Smithers, B.C.
Of those donations, $40,000 was given to the B.C. Liberals in July, two months before the province's final approval for the mine. Prior to that it had never donated more than $10,000.
"That's a beautiful example of the sadness of the situation," Lapointe said. "That seems to be a pretty obvious correlation right there."
But the company's vice-president of corporate affairs, Michelle Romero, says those donations were for participating in fundraising dinners, and the increase in donations is linked to the company's growth.
"We've grown from basically being a grassroots exploration company to being in production over that period of time," she said.
"Our profile increased and we just want to be part of the dialogue of issues that impact the area of our mine."
Romero explained that the province had already granted the company its environmental assessment approval, and the permit the province granted in September was less significant.
"There is no correlation with the permit received from the province," she said.