British Columbia

Mount Polley: Mines minister accepts scathing report but won't resign

“Did we have all the resources in place over the last 15 years that we should have? No, the auditor general is correct. There was a period of time that we needed to have more inspectors.”

'We will look at it,' says Bill Bennett on creating an independent compliance and enforcement unit

Energy and Mines Minister Bill Bennett says he won’t resign over the auditor’s general report — despite calls from the NDP to do so — because, he says, the independent investigation didn’t find the government responsible for the disaster. (B.C. Government Handout)

B.C.'s minister of energy and mines said he will consider the recommendations from a damning report by the province's auditor general that concluded his ministry's regulation of the mining industry does not adequately protect British Columbians from significant environmental risks.

However Bill Bennett did not agree with Auditor General Carol Bellringer's finding that his ministry failed to carry out its own regulatory oversight in the case of the tailings-pond dam at the Mount Polley mine which failed in August 2014.

"We found major gaps in resources, planning and tools. As a result, monitoring and inspections of mines were inadequate to ensure mine operators complied with requirements," Bellringer wrote in the report.

"During the course of this audit, these risks became a reality and disaster occurred when the tailings dam at Mount Polley failed — releasing approximately 25 million cubic metres of waste water and tailings into adjacent water systems and lakes."

Government not to blame, minister says

Bennett told host Rick Cluff on The Early Edition that there were lessons to be learned from the report.

Contents from the Mount Polley tailings pond are pictured going down the Hazeltine Creek into Quesnel Lake near the town of Likely, B.C. on August, 5, 2014. (Jonathan Hayward/The Canadian Press)

"Did we have all the resources in place over the last 15 years that we should've? No. The auditor general is correct. There was a period of time that we needed to have more inspectors."

However he disagreed that lack of regulations were responsible for the disaster.

"This was a performance audit. This was not an investigation into what caused the accident at Mount Polley," he said.

"We've already had two investigations into what caused the accident at Mount Polley, and it was a layer of unstable clay under the perimeter embankment of the tailings storage facility that was not discovered when the site was inspected … and as the independent expert panel said, no number of additional inspections would've uncovered that unstable wear."

Report calls for independent enforcement

Bennett said he won't resign over the auditor's general report — despite calls from the NDP to do so — as he said the independent investigations didn't find the government responsible for the disaster.

"I think what the public wants us to do is take the politics out of it, and listen to what the auditor general had to say about what we need to do to improve our legislation," he said.

"They had some very good recommendations [and] we're already implementing several of them," adding that the ministry is on its way to implementing a total of 43 recommendations from combined reports linked to the Mount Polley disaster.

The auditor general's report stated that the ministry's role of promoting mining development while at the same time being responsible for compliance and enforcement, creates an "irreconcilable conflict."

The report's chief recommendation is that the government create an integrated and independent compliance and enforcement unit for mining activities.

Bennett said no jurisdiction in Canada has permitting separate from its compliance and enforcement department, and said one reason for that is because permits for mining are very complex, so sharing of knowledge is required between departments.

"Your typical permit on a mine site may have 40, 50, 60, 70 conditions attached to the permit, so once that gets through the permitting branch which takes months and months if not years, then you have these folks who are in the compliance and enforcement division who have to understand what all these permit conditions are about," he said.

"Having said that, it's a suggestion made that I want to take respectfully from the auditor general. And we will look at it."

With files from CBC's The Early Edition

To hear the full story listen to the audio labelled: B.C. mines minister accepts scathing report from auditor general, but refuses calls to resign