Government’s responsibility to protect

3

by R. Sukhu

As most people know, we have three levels of government: the federal, the provincial and the municipal.  One of the primary purpose of government is to protect its citizens.  Local municipal government is at the bottom of the power structure and arguably has the toughest job.

Naturally some governments do a good job while others falter. I would like to bring your attention to an example of where governments failed.  What I want to focus on is not the failure but the lessons that we can learn from that failure.

About three years ago a tailings pond for a mine in B.C. owned by Imperial Metals breached and caused an environmental disaster.  Here is an article from the time reporting on what happened.

At the time of the disaster the B.C. government was providing assurances to the public that Imperial Metals would pay for the cleanup and “it could face fines of up to $1 million”.

Prior to the disaster, the B.C. provincial government issued five warnings to Imperial Metals warning them that the water levels in the tailings pond exceeded the permitted limits.  These warnings were ignored, and the breach happened.

Fast forward to today, 3 years later, and what has happened?  No one from Imperial Metals has been charged.  The company did not pay for the cleanup; instead the taxpayers ended up paying almost all of the $40 million in cleanup cost.  Ramsey Hart, who researches mining issues, when asked how long will it take to restore the area responded “I don’t think it will ever entirely be cleaned up”.

Few would argue that this is an example of a failure of government to protect.  The drinking water of towns up to 100 kilometres away was threatened.  The lakeside properties have been destroyed, the wealth that lakeside residents built over generations was wiped out.  And to add insult to injury, the people of B.C. are left with the cleanup costs!

But what about Imperial Metals?  The shareholders of Imperial Metals all profited prior to the disaster.  From the year 2003 to the end of 2013 the share price rose from 50 cents to over $15 – that is an excellent return.  When Imperial Metals eventually destroyed the land they simply walked away leaving the bulk of the cleanup cost to be borne by the very people whose lives they destroyed.

I have heard some people in our community of Mississippi Mills argue that property rights are “higher than parliamentary law”. I suppose they would argue that Imperial metals has the right to do whatever they want with their land.

This is like me using my land to make a profit and as a part of making that profit I destroy my neighbour’s land and her/his livelihood.  I then shift the cost of repairs onto my neighbour.  Of course, this makes no sense, but incredibly some well-intentioned people seem to support this view.

Although I cannot judge the Cariboo Regional District council who made the decisions when the mine was established, I can use history to see what mistakes they made. The objective is to learn from the mistakes.  Here are the mistakes that I identified:

  • Council should have a much longer time horizon into the future. They should be planning for at least 20 years out
  • There should have been an independent risk analysis of the mining operation done at the expense of the mining operator
  • Council should not have simply adopted the provincial guidelines but should have put in place much more stringent rules to protect its residents
  • There should have been rules that the mining operator must pay for insurance to protect each and every resident
  • The council should have insisted that the power to shut down the mine rests with the council. When the water levels were exceeded, it should be the local council that has to power to shut down the mine. Protection of residents should be supreme.

Some of these points are aspirational, by that I mean that there may be jurisdictional barriers to prevent a local council from demanding these protections.  Nevertheless, a local council’s primary motivation must be to protect residents.  It should work hard to put in place protections that exceed the minimum required.

To bring this home to our local Mississippi Mills, we have a council that seems willing to take a longer-term view.  They are trying to anticipate threats to our community, specifically environmental threats, and to establish rules to protect us. They seem unwilling to accept the minimal provincial requirements to protect our natural heritage.  They probably will not get it 100% correct but I am thankful that they are trying to protect my community and me from the rampages of an entity like Imperial Metals.