A group of non-profits are launching a private prosecution of Mount Polley Mining Corporation and the B.C. government more than two years after a dam breach released millions of cubic metres of tailings pond water into the environment.
Although the August, 2014, accident at the gold and silver mine near the city of Williams Lake in central B.C. was the largest mine-waste disaster in Canadian history, the province's chief inspector of mines ruled out charges last December after an investigation.
Fisheries and Oceans Canada, Environment Canada and the B.C. Conservation Officer Service have also undertaken investigations, but no charges have resulted from any of those probes so far.
Now MiningWatch Canada, a non-profit supported by environmental, social-justice and aboriginal organizations, is pushing the issue forward by announcing it plans to file charges in conjunction with a news conference at the Williams Lake Court House, Tuesday morning.
Ugo Lapointe, Canadian program co-ordinator of MiningWatch Canada, said in an interview Monday a private prosecution is needed because government simply isn't acting on the matter.
"If something was happening we wouldn't be doing this," he said. "Something needs to happen. So we are keeping pressure on by filing charges."
Mr. Lapointe said the legal action, which seeks to bring charges against both the province and the mining company under the federal Fisheries Act, is supported by more than a dozen organizations including the Wilderness Committee, Sierra Club BC, Amnesty International Canada and First Nations Women Advocating for Responsible Mining.
In a statement he said MiningWatch is prepared to pursue the case "to full trial if necessary," but because of the costs involved, the hope is that the federal Crown will take over prosecution.
"If Canada's unique environmental values and waters are to be fully protected, it can only occur if the government stands against violations of the Fisheries Act and uses all the means and resources it has at its disposal to do so," Mr. Lapointe said.
"We are all concerned that almost 30 months [after the accident], despite clear evidence of impacts on waters, fish and fish habitat, no sanctions and no penalties have been brought forward by any level of government. This sends the wrong signal to the industry across the country and undermines public confidence in the capacity of our regulatory system to work effectively to protect our environment."
He said that under the Criminal Code any citizen can start a private prosecution if there are reasonable grounds to believe an indictable offence has been committed.
When the Mount Polley tailings dam was breached, more than 21 million cubic metres of water and mine tailings scoured out a creekbed and created a massive sediment plume in Quesnel Lake, which provides important salmon habitat.
Last December, Al Hoffman, B.C.'s chief inspector of mines, released a report which ruled out charges against Mount Polley Mining Corp., a subsidiary of Imperial Metals Corp.
"I do not believe there is sufficient evidence of a contravention with respect to the regulatory requirements," Mr. Hoffman stated.
"The investigation showed that there was no significant contravention of the Mines Act, the Mines Regulation, Mines Act Permit M-200 or the Health, Safety and Reclamation Code for Mines in British Columbia," he wrote.
Mr. Hoffman said the dam gave way largely because of a weak, underlying layer of clay 10 metres beneath the foundation, which had not been properly characterized by engineers when the dam was built. He also noted contributing factors included an overly steep downstream slope to the dam and an excess of water in the tailings pond.
Steve Robertson, vice-president of corporate affairs for Imperial Metals, said the company had not been notified of the MiningWatch action and had no comment at this time.
The B.C. government's Ministry of Energy and Mines was not able to provide immediate comment Monday.