British Columbia is catching up with other provinces by introducing tougher penalties for mining companies that fail to comply with health and safety rules.
Energy and Mines Minister Bill Bennett introduced amendments to the Mines Act on Thursday that will give regulators new powers to levy financial penalties without having to go to court. As well, the courts will be able to impose more severe punishment including fines of up to $1-million and three-year jail terms.
It's the latest in a string of measures to improve mining safety in the wake of the 2014 environmental disaster when a tailings pond collapsed at the Mount Polley copper and gold mine in central B.C.
"Governments, over the decades, have relied on companies to utilize best practices," Mr. Bennett told reporters Thursday. Now, he said, the province will take a more prescriptive and less trusting approach.
"Our challenge now is to determine what … we have to prescribe, in regulation and policy, that will ensure that what the vast majority of mining companies already do, is being done by everybody," he said.
"There will be some administrative penalties for non-compliance that can ensure that some of the weak practices we saw at that mine site don't happen again."
The details of the new administrative penalties will not be set out in regulation for another two months but he suggested they could be as high as $500,000.
Alberta imposes administrative penalties for violations of its mining legislation while Ontario, Manitoba and Quebec use health and safety or environmental legislation to levy financial penalties without having to resort to the courts.
Karina Brino, president and CEO of the Mining Association of B.C., said she was only informed of the changes on Thursday morning. "But it's been known government was contemplating new enforcement tools. As far as we know, we will be a part of the development of the regulations."
She said these are financially difficult times for the industry but there is recognition that changes are needed to restore confidence in the sector. "This is an industry that is committed to safety and we'll do what we need to ensure those recommendations are implemented in a fashion that will be effective."
The tailings dam at the Mount Polley collapse in August, 2014, sent millions of cubic metres of mine waste and water into local waterways.
An independent panel last year concluded the design of the tailings pond dam failed to address the unstable foundation on which it sits, a flaw that was compounded over the many years that the dam was repeatedly raised to accommodate a growing lake of toxic waste. The panel made 26 recommendations for change and Mr. Bennett said Thursday he expects all of those change to be implemented by the spring of 2017.
A review by B.C.'s chief mines inspector found weak water-management standards at the Mount Polley site but he did not find enough evidence to pursue charges under the Mines Act against the owners, Imperial Metals Corp. A joint investigation by conservation services is still under way to determine if other violations may have occurred, for example over contamination of water.
The province has allowed Imperial Metals to resume operations on a temporary permit. The company hopes to go back to full operations by this spring.
The tailings pond failure prompted a major overhaul of the province's mining sector, including more inspections and regulation at a time when commodity prices are slumping and many operations are shedding jobs.
Earlier this month, Mr. Bennett announced temporary rate relief for the mining sector on hydro costs in a bid to keep the eight metal mines and five coal mines that are still operating in the province afloat. There are 60 metal and coal mines in B.C. – some are under construction but the rest are either permanently or temporarily closed.