The B.C. government's oversight of mining has too few resources and inspections and a lack of enforcement, increasing risk of another Mount Polley-type failure that damages the environment, B.C. Auditor General Carol Bellringer says in a new report.
Bellringer said having mine permitting and mine inspections in the same ministry creates an "irreconcilable conflict" between promoting expansion of mining and regulating it. She recommends moving the compliance and enforcement function outside the ministry to an independent body.
Energy and Mines Minister Bill Bennett stopped short of rejecting that idea, but said he has found no other jurisdiction in Canada that does that, and there are important reasons for keeping it within the ministry.
His position was backed by two senior officials, Chief Inspector of Mines Al Hoffman and George Warnock, director of geotechnical engineering for the B.C. government.
Hoffman said it's important that the technical experts who set permit conditions and then do compliance and enforcement be in the same group so they know how to follow up.
Warnock used the example of the KSM mine, recently permitted for construction in northwest B.C. with 178 conditions.
"We know exactly what we're looking for in those permit conditions when we go to that mine, and I don't know how a body outside the ministry would," Warnock said.
NDP mining critic Norm Macdonald said the 2014 collapse of the tailings dam at Mount Polley copper mine near Williams Lake shows the auditor is correct that there is not a "culture of enforcement" in B.C. mining.
An undetected weak layer under the Mount Polley dam was the ultimate cause of the failure, but risk was compounded by high water, the lack of "beach" construction to ease pressure on the dam and a steeper slope than what was called for in the original plans, Macdonald said.
Bennett acknowledged that the ministry had too few geotechnical inspectors in 2009-10. He said the ministry accepts the other 17 recommendations in Bellringer's report, and is on its way to implementing them.
The government has changed the Mines Act to allow for administrative penalties to be assessed if mine operators don't comply with inspection orders.
Macdonald said there have been no penalties assessed to the company operating the Mount Polley mine, and no penalties have ever been assessed under the Mines Act under the B.C. Liberal government.