The B.C. government has ordered independent investigations into the spill at the Mount Polley mine and at every other tailings pond in the province, saying the disaster has shaken public confidence and threatens to undermine other resource-sector projects as well.
The province – which has been criticized by First Nations near the spill for a perceived lack of industry oversight – has also signed a letter of understanding with two bands, whose leaders say they'll push for meaningful mining reform.
The hiring of an outside panel of experts to investigate the Mount Polley spill is a shift from the province's earlier stance that probes by the chief inspector of mines and the Conservation Officer Service would suffice. Each of the three experts on the panel has decades of engineering experience, with one having worked on the investigation into the New Orleans levee failures during Hurricane Katrina.
At a news conference Monday, Bill Bennett, B.C.'s Minister of Energy and Mines, stressed that the province must do whatever it takes to restore public confidence in mining in particular and the resource sector in general.
"The rest of Canada and many countries around the world will be watching to see what we learn in B.C., which provides yet more motivation to ensure we take appropriate actions to get to the bottom of this accident and to learn from it," he told reporters.
"Mining is a critical industry in B.C. It supports dozens of communities and thousands of families in the province. But it must be done in a way that the public has confidence in it. We're committed to taking a leadership role internationally, finding out exactly why this happened, and ensuring that it never happens again."
The tailings pond at the Mount Polley mine – which is owned by Imperial Metals Corporation – breached on Aug. 4, sending millions of cubic metres of waste into central B.C. waterways. A cause has not been determined. The spill prompted several days of water-use bans for hundreds of residents, and the province has said it could harm marine life.
Mr. Bennett said Imperial Metals will be responsible for the cost of the independent investigation into the spill. An Imperial Metals spokesperson did not return a message seeking comment Monday.
Dirk Van Zyl, a mining professor at the University of British Columbia and a member of the panel of experts, said Mount Polley was "a dark day not only for mining in B.C., but worldwide."
The other two members of the panel will be Norbert Morgenstern, professor emeritus at the University of Alberta, and Steven Vick, a geotechnical engineer from Colorado who worked on the New Orleans levee failures. Mr. Vick also chaired an investigation into a massive gold-mine spill in Guyana.
The panel must deliver its report on Mount Polley by Jan. 31. Mr. Bennett said its recommendations will be implemented by government as needed. The investigations by the chief inspector of mines and the Conservation Officer Service will also continue.
The independent inspections of all other B.C. tailings ponds must be completed by Dec. 1. The province currently has 98 permitted tailings ponds at 60 operating and closed metal and coal mines. Thirty-one of the ponds are at active mines.
Karina Brino, president of the Mining Association of B.C., said her group supports anything that will help understand the Mount Polley breach and demonstrate its commitment to the public. Ms. Brino did express some concern, however, on whether there would be enough independent experts to assess all the tailings ponds by December.
John Rustad, B.C.'s Minister of Aboriginal Relations, announced at a separate event Monday that the province has signed a letter of understanding with the Williams Lake Indian Band and the Soda Creek Indian Band to work in partnership to address all aspects of the Mount Polley breach. Each First Nation was given $200,000 to cover costs already incurred, or that will be incurred in the near future.
Chief Ann Louie, of the Williams Lake band, said her First Nation is not "anti-mining" but any work must be carried out in a smart, responsible manner.
"We're asking the provincial government to include us in reviewing the mining policies and legislation that they have in place that could have avoided this incident, and to strengthen the policies and legislation," she said in a conference call.