When Enbridge Inc. sought approval to build the Northern Gateway oil pipeline, Premier Christy Clark said she would oppose the project so long as the environmental safety regime on land and on the water was in doubt. In its formal rejection letter, her government stated: "'Trust me' is not good enough in this case."
The same could be said in the case of the Mount Polley mine. And the Clark government should be worried that this lack of faith could spill across the resource sector.
It is still not clear why the mine's tailings dam burst last month. Environment Minister Mary Polak says there is no evidence that her government's cutbacks to enforcement and inspections were to blame.
The breach in the dam flushed 24 million cubic metres of water and mine tailings into Quesnel Lake. Mining industry and government officials alike tugged their forelocks and promised to review dam design and maintenance. If the public focuses only on the question of dam safety, they will be getting off lightly.
Experts have warned, time and again, that provincial budget cuts to environmental regulation could result in a catastrophe. Here are just two examples:
The Professional Employees Association, in a report last March, noted that the province has reduced its complement of scientific and technical experts – engineers, agrologists, foresters and geoscientists – by 15 per cent since 2009. Five months before the Mount Polley breach, the association warned those reductions could threaten both public safety and the environment because of inadequate monitoring and inspections.
The Forest Practices Board has also expressed alarm. In a special report in May, the board stated that forestry compliance inspections and management have dropped by a third. They examined 216 resource bridges and discovered that more than a third lack an engineer's seal of approval and 19 of them were "obviously unsafe."
New Democratic Party Leader John Horgan will be back in the community of Likely on Monday to speak with residents who are worried about their water supply and salmon habitat because of the Mount Polley disaster. It will be his second visit to the mine site since the breach, and Mr. Horgan will use this visit as a backdrop to raise his concerns about government's diminished role in ensuring that resource development is conducted safely.
"Mount Polley will become a symbol of what is wrong with our environmental processes and our enforcement and compliance and it will have a debilitating impact on investment," he said in an interview. "The government has tried to diminish this catastrophic event and cross their fingers that another won't happen."
Andrew Weaver, the Green Party MLA, has also travelled to see the Mount Polley mess. "It's clear to me the biggest legacy of this will be that the government has lost the trust of people that it is looking after our interests," he said.
He has asked the auditor-general of B.C. to look at the cuts to compliance and enforcement, especially in the mining sector. "This disaster gives the entire resource sector a black eye," he said.
Ms. Polak cautions against jumping to conclusions. "To date there is no evidence that cutbacks have impacted on inspections and monitoring at Mount Polley. Having said that, it is one of the questions we want answered."
She acknowledged that until she can provide those answers, people will rightly be mistrustful.
"Uncertainty is one of the major enemies of trust – that's what we see here," she said.
The public debate in the legislature will begin when the session resumes on Oct. 6. At the same time, an important internal debate begins when Treasury Board starts to frame the 2015 budget. That is the opportunity to take a hard look at whether the government's resources are sufficient to give the public comfort. If Ms. Polak waits for her report on Mount Polley, due in January, before making the case for more boots on the ground, it may be too late.