A second investigation has been launched into the question of whether or not the B.C. government has improperly withheld information about the catastrophic collapse of the Mount Polley tailings pond.
In a letter to the Environmental Law Centre at the University of Victoria, Michael McEvoy, the acting Information and Privacy Commissioner for B.C., has confirmed his office has opened a file into a complaint by the ELC about the government's refusal to release routine mine inspection reports concerning Mount Polley.
Since the Aug. 4 accident, which discharged nearly 15 million cubic metres of toxic mine waste into the Fraser River watershed, the government has refused to release documents related to the mine, including the annual dam safety inspection reports from 2010 to 2013.
The government said documents couldn't be released because an investigation is under way. That prompted the ELC to complain to the Information and Privacy Commissioner that the release of documents "relevant to the greatest mining environmental disaster in B.C. history is a matter of clear and pressing public interest."
The ELC said release of the documents could not possibly harm an investigation because the only two parties that could be at fault in the accident – the mining company and provincial regulators – already have the documents in question.
"The only people without the documents – the people being kept in the dark – are the public of British Columbia," the complaint states.
In responding to Calvin Sandborn, the ELC's legal director, Mr. McEvoy said his office would open a new file, but some of the issues raised in the ELC complaint will be dealt with through an investigation that is already under way.
In August, the BC Freedom of Information and Privacy Association (BCFIPA) complained the government failed to notify the public about potential risks related to the Mount Polley mine, which is operated by Imperial Metals Corp., near the central B.C. town of Likely. The BCFIPA complaint is that the government failed to alert the public about risks identified in a 2010 safety report.
The new investigation will look at the ELC complaint that there has been a "systematic series of breaches" of the Freedom of Information and Privacy Act (FIPPA) by government since the tailings pond collapse.
"Government has committed apparent statutory breaches of FIPPA by generally delaying or refusing timely access to key documents related to the Mount Polley disaster," the ELC writes in its complaint. "This appears to be a general and deliberate policy to withhold all such documentation. This deprives the public of key information at a time when such information is urgently needed – when the public must have information about the most pressing environmental issue facing British Columbia today."
The complaint states that the public interest in the accident is apparent.
"Very few public issues raised have been of such clear gravity and present significance to the public interest," it says.