Mining Reform is a Tale of Broken Promises

Stewart Phillip and Robert Phillips:

The recent Federal Court of Appeal ruling quashing approval of the Trans Mountain Pipeline expansion shocked many people who saw the project as a done deal. But for some communities across B.C. it was temporary relief in the ongoing struggle for the recognition and implementation of First Nations title and rights.

The court found that Canada had a flawed consultation and accommodation process with First Nations and concluded that Ottawa “failed to engage dialogue meaningfully and grapple with the real concerns of the Indigenous applicants so as to explore possible accommodation of those concerns.” Indigenous consent includes protecting the lands and waters.

Despite the win, our concern over the aggressive approach toward resource extraction has increased following a report by David Chambers, a geophysicist and founder of the Center for Science in Public Participation in Bozeman, Mont.

Chambers found that key recommendations by the expert panel into the Mount Polley Mine tailings dam disaster in 2014 have been ignored or not implemented in a way to significantly reduce the risk of tailings dam breaches in both existing and planned mine structures.

The panel predicted two similar breaches every 10 years unless steps were taken to change the way mines manage their waste. Therefore, Canada is due for two more Mount Polley type dam failures — or worse — in the next six years.

The panel also recommended that best available technology be encouraged for new tailings facilities at existing and proposed mines, such as eliminating water to cover the tailings, which eliminates the threat of a breach caused by water pressure, yet we see no changes.

The provincial government still has no explicit criteria or enforceable laws to measure and enforce the implementation of the best technology. “Business as usual” puts profits before safety and accepts harmful impacts to downstream communities.

An analysis in northern B.C. conducted by B.C. First Nations Energy and Mining Council showed that 8,678 kilometres of streams, rivers and lakes lie downstream from B.C. mines, potentially impacting 33 First Nations, plus 208 additional cities and settlements within watersheds that would be impacted by failed dams.

In 2004 and 2005, two dams were breached in north-central B.C. at the Pinchi Lake Mine in Tl’azt’en/Nak’azdli First Nations’ territory and at an unmanaged dam in the Takla Lake First Nation territory. This is unacceptable.

Also ignoring the expert panel’s recommendations, the Mining Association of Canada relies on its own Towards Sustainable Mining. But not all mining companies are association members and TSM is a self-assessed benchmarking system, so its best practices are not robust nor enforceable.

The panel noted that Towards Sustainable Mining is not a substitute for rigorous government oversight and enforcement, the absence of which was one of the factors that led to the Mount Polley disaster.

According to the mining association, there are 98 tailings dams at 60 mines in the province.

In northern B.C., 10 new mines have been proposed or are under construction. The KSM Mine, will be the largest open-pit gold and copper mine in North America. Its tailings pond — six times bigger than Mount Polley — will be behind a 239-metre-high dam towering over the Bell Irving/Nass watershed that empties into Southeast Alaska.

Canada has more mine tailings spills than any other country in the world except China and in the face of government and industry inaction, it is a disgraceful distinction.

Indigenous people are voicing their concerns and opposition to major industrial projects that create harm and try to shove their way through consent. Government and industry must catch up to the people — who want a safer, cleaner and sustainable future.

We call upon the provincial government to collaborate with First Nations on a mining reform agenda. Mining reform is an important priority, which we plan to raise at the upcoming All Chiefs-B.C. Cabinet meeting.

Grand Chief Stewart Phillip is president of the Union of British Columbia Indian Chiefs; Robert Phillips is an executive member of the First Nations Summit Task Group.

 

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