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An Aug. 4 tailings breach sent millions of cubic feet of water and tailings surging into the Quesnel Lake and surrounding waterways, causing damage as far away as the town of Likely, B.C.

JONATHAN HAYWARD/The Canadian Press

B.C. should adopt whistleblower legislation to ensure that workers inside government and at the Mount Polley mine can speak freely about a tailings-pond breach without fear of losing their jobs, says a letter signed by union, environmental and First Nations groups.

"Much of the critical evidence surrounding the [government's] regulatory oversight is in the hands of the Mount Polley Mine employees," says the letter, which was sent Thursday to Premier Christy Clark and signed by six groups, including the Environmental Law Centre at the University of Victoria, United Steelworkers and the Williams Lake Indian Band.

"As it stands today, both government and company employees may well be reluctant to bring forward information, for fear of dismissal or discipline."

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An Aug. 4 breach of the tailings dam at the mine sent millions of cubic metres of water and tailings surging into Quesnel Lake and surrounding waterways, raising concerns about the long-term impact on fish, wildlife and water quality, along with questions about government oversight of the mining sector. Three reviews are now under way. B.C.'s Conservation Officer Service, backed by the RCMP, is conducting an investigation. Mine inspectors from the provincial Ministry of Energy and Mines are also conducting a review. And a three-member expert panel, appointed in August, is conducting an independent review. Its report is due by Jan. 31, 2015.

In their letter, the groups say the panel review's independence could come into question if legislative protection is not provided.

"Regulatory oversight by Ministry of Environment and the Ministry of Energy and Mines is one of the central issues under investigation," the letter says. "Yet there appears to be a real possibility that civil servants could withhold information about such oversight for fear of discipline by superiors whom they might implicate.

"Without public assurance that no one need be afraid to bring forward relevant evidence, this investigation cannot possibly be considered independent and complete."

Mines Minister Bill Bennett said he is confident there is no risk for whistleblowers to approach any of the three investigative bodies on the Mount Polley case.

"All three independent investigations have the same rules around them, as a police investigation. In the case of the conservation officers service, even the chief mines inspector – he's not telling me what he is doing, who he is talking to, how it is going. I haven't talked to him since he started his investigation," Mr. Bennett said in Victoria.

"The independent panel, same thing. … That information is completely confidential, government will never see it."

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He did not rule out stronger whistleblower protection in general.

"We're talking about Mount Polley. I'm not going to state any opinion [on the law] because I think it is up to our government to determine whether the legislation needs work or not, but on Mount Polley I'm satisfied that anybody who has information has a way of coming forward – there is actually no excuse for not coming forward with whatever you know."

The Mount Polley tailings failure put the mine's owner, Imperial Metals, in the spotlight for its operations elsewhere in the province.

After the spill, the Tahltan Central Council commissioned a review of the tailings dam design at Red Chris, a gold and copper mine in northwestern B.C., 500 kilometres north of Terrace. The review, by engineering firm Klohn Crippen Berger, found the design of the dam feasible, but that there are issues that must be addressed.

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