The B.C. government is launching a review of the health and safety laws that regulate mining in the province in the wake of last summer's Mount Polley mine disaster. And, for the first time, First Nations will have equal representation at the table with industry and organized labour.
Mines Minister Bill Bennett said Wednesday the provincial government has been slow to recognize the need to give aboriginal communities a voice in shaping resource development. The challenge, he said, will be integrating B.C.'s traditional industry priorities with the more holistic perspective of First Nations around environmental protection.
"It's unprecedented. There will be some anxiety on the industry side," he said in an interview.
The review of the Health, Safety and Reclamation Code for Mines is intended to address recommendations for better environmental regulation. The need for change was spelled out in an expert panel report that examined the failure of the tailings pond dam at the Mount Polley copper and gold mine near Williams Lake in B.C.'s Central Interior. The panel found design flaws in the dam led to the breach, which spilled 10 million cubic metres of contaminated water into the waterways below. They also warned that more dam failures can be expected if changes are not made.
Mr. Bennett also welcomed a new report from the BC First Nations Energy and Mining Council that addresses the concerns of aboriginal communities about other existing tailings-pond facilities and the continued appetite for expanded mining in B.C.
The council report mapped out the 35 active mine tailings ponds in B.C. north of Mount Polley, and traced the potential paths of contaminants from dam failures at those sites. It found thousands of kilometres of salmon-rich waterways and the drinking water of hundreds of communities are at risk of mining-related environmental disasters.
"It is actually profoundly important," Mr. Bennett said. "It represents the First Nations' view of the world.… Their point of view really hasn't come in to the internal dialogue of government as much as it should have."
He said the question of what needs to change to mitigate the risk of another tailings-pond failure will be addressed by the review panel. "This is a discussion that government needs to have with the industry, with the unions, with First Nations."
The review of the code is expected to take one year, he said.
Dave Porter, chief executive officer of the First Nations mining council, said the government's offer to ensure First Nations participate in the code review on equal footing with industry is appropriate.
"We appreciate the positive response from the minister," he said. "It appears that overall, the attitude of government has been one of recognizing the importance of building a more responsive and accountable mining sector in this province."
The council, led by Mr. Porter, has already set out a series of priorities from the province's First Nations communities. Most of the mining activity in the province occurs in land that is subject to aboriginal land claims, and the council is calling for a framework for resource revenue sharing. They're also seeking a new industry-funded reserve that would be made available in the event of another serious environmental incident related to the mining industry.
Although there are still two investigations continuing into the breach of the Mount Polley dam, the government is expected to move ahead with an application to reopen the mine this summer. Mr. Bennett said getting the mine restarted is important for the community, and it will not use the existing tailings pond.