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Contents from a tailings pond is pictured going down the Hazeltine Creek into Quesnel Lake near the town of Likely, B.C. Tuesday, August, 5, 2014.

JONATHAN HAYWARD/THE CANADIAN PRESS

The B.C. government appears to have systemically breached its freedom of information law by withholding information related to the collapse of the tailings dam at the Mount Polley mine, environment lawyers say.

The province has refused to provide recent inspection reports related to the tailings pond, saying such information may undermine any one of three investigations to determine why the dam failed on Aug. 4, sending a torrent of toxic waste and debris into surrounding waterways.

But when provincial officials refused to hand over a 22-year-old report on the Mount Polley mine, the legal director for the University of Victoria's Environmental Law Centre decided the suppression of information had gone too far.

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"The provincial government's refusal to provide timely access is not only highly troubling, but verges on the absurd," said Calvin Sandborn in a 60-page submission asking B.C.'s Information and Privacy commissioner Elizabeth Denham for a review of the province's conduct. The 1992 report was sitting on a shelf in the Williams Lake public library and a helpful librarian eventually sent him a copy.

The release of government documents relating to "the greatest mining environmental disaster in B.C. history is a matter of clear and pressing public interest," Mr. Sandborn argued. "The only people without the documents – the people being kept in the dark – are the public of British Columbia."

Other Canadian jurisdictions routinely release data such as safety inspection reports and government orders related to tailings ponds. However, the B.C. government has blocked the release of documents, saying public disclosure may undermine its ability to prosecute under the Mines Act or other legislation.

The law centre requested the 1992 and 1997 environmental assessment reports on the dam on Aug. 18. The Environmental Assessment Office refused to make the documents available and recommended the office make a formal request under freedom of information.

Ms. Denham has criticized the province for routinely failing to respond to freedom of information requests within legal time limits, and Mr. Sandborn said that avenue would only lead to unseemly delays.

Bill Bennett, Minister of Energy and Mines, said he has been warned that too much disclosure could foil any attempt to seek accountability for the breach. "When it comes time for the finger-pointing to happen, I don't want to be the guy who was the reason charges can't be laid."

The chief mines inspector is conducting one investigation, and a panel of mining experts is doing a report that is due at the end of January. As well, the RCMP are involved in a probe by federal and provincial conservation services.

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Environment Minister Mary Polak was in the community of Likely on Friday to answer questions from residents living adjacent to the Mount Polley mine. "We can expect bits and pieces of information to come out," she said in an interview Tuesday. "It is going to be really important that none of us form conclusions until we get to the end of those investigations."

Peggy Zorn, who runs Ecotours-BC, said there is frustration with the way the government is responding to their concerns. "You expect our government to ensure the safety of the citizens they represent," she said. Ms. Zorn would like to know how the breach happened and what the regulator – the government – might have done to prevent it. But she said she is mostly worried about the future of her outdoor adventure business. "What is not going to go back to normal is the environment. This was one of the most pristine lakes in the world. People drew their drinking water from Quesnel Lake." Now, she said, people are mistrustful when the government assures them about water quality.

Mr. Sanborn said the public trust in government regulation is at stake. "You will have bad regulation of mines if it is done in the dark," he said in an interview. He is hoping the privacy commissioner will push the province to make disclosure routine and accessible online, similar to the documentation available from the Ontario Ministry of Environment and Climate Change and the Nunavut Water Board.

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