A reorganization within the B.C. government four years ago led to a precipitous drop in the number of engineering inspections of tailings dams at the province's mines, new figures released Monday by the province show.
In 2010 – the same year that a huge crack was reported in the dam at the Mount Polley gold and copper mine – the government's geotechnical engineers conducted just three inspections across the province, down from 22 the year before. The following year, in 2011, only two inspections were completed.
Bill Bennett, Minister of Energy and Mines, said Monday it appears the Mount Polley dam did not have a geotechnical inspection by ministry staff during those two years. "It doesn't look like it would have had," he said in an interview. "I was surprised when I saw the numbers, and not very happy about it."
The Mount Polley dam failed in August, spilling 24 million cubic metres of water and mine tailings into Quesnel Lake in central B.C. The last geotechnical inspection by the ministry of mines at Mount Polley took place in September, 2013, and resulted in no orders related to the tailings storage facility.
Mr. Bennett said there is no evidence that the government's missed inspections were related to the failure of the dam this year: "There is a rush to judgment right now. … We don't know it is true."
The inspection numbers were released in response to media requests.
Mr. Bennett openly opposed the 2010 reorganization of the so-called dirt ministries – the government departments responsible for resource development.
"I think I was right at the time," he said Monday.
"Even in 2009, there was too much of a reduction in funding, particularly on the mining side. I said so internally, and then I said it out loud." Mr. Bennett said the government under Premier Christy Clark has restored ministry funding and the number of geotechnical inspections has climbed back up to historic levels.
The government reorganization in 2010 was designed to reflect a realignment of priorities under then-premier Gordon Campbell. Responsibilities of seven ministries were shuffled to move to a "single team" approach to resource management.
However, a recent report by the Professional Employees Association suggests the decline hasn't been entirely reversed. Since 2009, the number of government-licensed science officers, including geoscientists and engineers, has shrunk by 15 per cent. The report, published last March, warned those cutbacks could put the environment and public safety at risk.
Norm Macdonald, the B.C. New Democratic Party critic for mining, said the decline in inspections in 2010 and 2011 would have sent a terrible signal to industry that the government wasn't taking safety seriously.
Mr. Macdonald said Mr. Bennett should take responsibility for the Mount Polley disaster and resign. "Ultimately, the province is responsible for overseeing the engineering, building and maintenance of these structures, and it failed," he said. "To restore public confidence, we need to see some contrition from this government for the failure at Mount Polley."
The company's engineering firm of record reported a crack at least 10 metres in length had been observed in the earthen dam while work was under way to raise it in 2010. That crack was almost a kilometre away from where the dam breached this year. The company's engineering firm also warned that a number of instruments required to measure water pressure behind the dam were in a state of disrepair, which the company says were later fixed.
The government has not released its geotechnical inspection reports for the Mount Polley dam, but Mr. Bennett said he has been assured by his staff that the problems flagged by Mount Polley's engineering firm were addressed. "They advise me the 2010 deficiencies were rectified."