The regulatory body that oversees British Columbia’s engineers and geoscientists is alleging negligence and unprofessional conduct against three engineers in connection with the 2014 Mount Polley dam collapse that sent millions of cubic metres of tailings-pond water into B.C. waterways.
Engineers and Geoscientists BC announced the hearings, scheduled for next year, for Todd Martin, Laura Fidel and Stephen Rice on Wednesday following an independent investigation into the breach.
The regulator’s investigation committee alleges that the three individuals, who were involved in the design, construction and monitoring of the tailings-storage facility, demonstrated negligence and/or unprofessional conduct in the course of their professional activities.
The allegations have not yet been heard by a disciplinary panel and are unproven.
The August, 2014, incident spewed some 24 million cubic metres of water and mine tailings into several lakes and rivers in B.C.’s Interior, marking the largest mine-waste disaster in Canadian history. The flood of wastewater scoured out a creekbed and created a massive sediment plume in Quesnel Lake, which provides an important salmon habitat.
A three-year deadline for provincial charges passed last year, but B.C. Environment Minister George Heyman maintained that the mining company could still be held responsible through federal laws.
The ministry on Wednesday said that while allegations are at this stage unproven, the situation underscores the importance of government’s review of professional reliance – the practice of relying upon the advice of professionals in the industry, who accept responsibility and can be held accountable.
“British Columbians should be assured that a strong, transparent process is in place that upholds the public interest and high environmental standards,” read a statement from the ministry.
“In addition, there is an ongoing investigation between the B.C. Conservation Officer Service, the Department of Fisheries and Oceans, and Environment and Climate Change Canada. All of the information gathered during the course of this investigation will be considered by the Public Prosecution Service of Canada for consideration of charges under the federal Fisheries Act, which carries higher penalties than provincial legislation.”
Engineers and Geoscientists BC, meanwhile, can impose sanctions including a reprimand, practice restrictions, suspension, cancellation of membership or a fine of up to $25,000.
A three-person subcommittee of senior professionals led the investigation, reviewing more than 13,000 documents including contracts, correspondence and daily site reports. It also considered reports from other public investigations conducted by the Independent Expert Engineering Investigation and Review Panel and the Chief Inspector of Mines.
Among the allegations, Mr. Martin, design engineer for the tailings-storage facility, is accused of adopting an overly steep design slope for the perimeter embankment and then failing to ensure sufficient observation and monitoring of it, according to a notice of inquiry.
Ms. Fidel is accused of demonstrating unprofessional conduct by accepting the role of engineer of record when she was not qualified by training or experience, then signing off on a design of the facility’s embankments and accompanying stability analyses when she was unqualified to do so.
She is also accused of then failing to ensure there was sufficient monitoring of the embankments, as well as failing to have an appropriately qualified geotechnical engineer assess an unfilled excavation at the toe of the perimeter embankment she became aware of before taking a leave from work, according to a notice of inquiry.
Mr. Rice, identified in a notice of inquiry as the most-senior engineer at AMEC Foster Wheeler, is accused of demonstrating unprofessional conduct by allowing Ms. Fidel to act as the engineer of record.
Other allegations against him include that he failed to have a geotechnical engineer with appropriate experience regularly monitor the tailings-storage facility; that he accepted the responsibility as the review engineer for the embankments’ design when he was unqualified; and that he also failed to have an appropriately qualified geotechnical engineer assess the unfilled excavation.
On Thursday, the environmental group First Nations Women Advocating Responsible Mining released a report critical of the B.C. government. The report, authored by geophysicist and Center for Science in Public Participation founder David Chambers, argues the province failed to fully implement the recommendations of an independent expert engineering panel established to determine the root causes of the breach.
The report says thje government has failed to employ the best available technologies, assess the viability of non-water cover tailings and require a bankable feasibility study, the report lists as examples.
“Not only has the company faced no fines or penalties for the disaster, but the inventory of tailings facilities remains and new tailings storage facilities have been built using the same technology," the report says.
“While the B.C. government has partially responded to the recommendations of the Mount Polley Expert Panel, it has fallen short to significantly reduce the risks of another failure.”