Bev Sellars was Chief of the Xat’sull First Nation, people affected directly by the Mount Polley disaster. In March 2018, Prince George Citizen — a Glacier Media newspaper — published a guest editorial by Ms. Sellars. It is worth our attention:
So B.C. will finally review its sadly weak Environmental Assessment process. About time! But, can First Nations trust the NDP government to really work with them to address the glaring problems and make real and meaningful changes.
The B.C. process has been a bad joke. Travesties like B.C.’s repeated approval of the soundly discredited and federally rejected Prosperity/New Prosperity proposals and the approval of the unsafe and ultimately disastrous Mount Polley tailings dam have long made clear to many that the process is designed to help mining companies, not to truly protect the environment and Indigenous rights.
I would like to believe the NDP government intends to live up to its word in terms of respecting Indigenous rights and protecting the environment. First Nations have been given reason to hope the United Nations Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples will be implemented, together with a requirement for free prior and informed consent for mining or other natural resource developments affecting First Nations.
But recent events have raised doubts as to the government’s sincerity. So I have the following question: Premier Horgan, where are you on Mount Polley?
I was acting chief of the Xat’sull (Soda Creek) Nation on Aug. 4, 2014. when the dam failure at Imperial Metals’ Mount Polley mine unleashed the largest mining disaster in Canadian history. I watched while the provincial conservation officers took three years to investigate the disaster and failed to lay any charges.
I remember when you, fresh to the job of premier, called their failure shocking, even disturbing. And I went to court on Aug. 4, 2017, the last day in the provincial limitations period, to lay private charges which held the door open for your government – giving you a bit more time to hold Imperial Metals accountable.
But your government’s prosecutors took over my private prosecution and dropped the charges…
Since this opinion piece, a further four months has passed without federal charges against the operators of Mount Polley. Both the Horgan and Clark governments chose not to charge Imperial Metals.
Compare the passage of 4 years without a charge against Mount Polley operators to the quick response when a rude 19-year-old released an adult-sized blow-up doll over West Vancouver’s Ambleside beach. He was arrested within two weeks and faces a charge of mischief under Canada’s Criminal Code.
The Mount Polley event occurred on August 4, 2014. Independent experts investigated the tailings dam breach and the panel, chaired by a respected 79-year-old engineer, delivered its final report in January 2015.
The experts determined the disaster occurred because of “foundation failure.”
In 2014, BC’s Inspector of Mines had reported numerous deficiencies in working conditions at Mount Polley, including:
- Portions of the site contaminated by human sewage;
- Unsafe working conditions because of inadequate ventilation, chemical leaks and improper storage of dangerous chemicals and other hazardous materials;
- Workers exposed to harmful chemicals including lead;
- Inadequate documentation, testing and management of electrical power systems, including high voltage relays;
- Deficient rigging, lifting and other operating equipment;
- Out-of-date Underground Mine Emergency Response Plan;
- Inadequate emergency egress from underground sites.
Not the sort of company most of us would choose as our employer. Nor does it seem to be a company that should have been trusted to operate where important bodies of fresh water were at risk.
Trust was a critical issue in this situation and it is clear the Ministry of Energy and Mines placed too much confidence in reports of professional engineering companies.
Sonia Furstenau, MLA for Cowichan Valley, spoke after government commissioned an independent professional reliance review:
In recent years, professional reliance has played a significant role in the loss of public trust in decision making around industrial activity. It is incumbent on the B.C. government to take urgent steps, as outlined in this report, to begin to rebuild that trust.
The following is taken from a report written by AMEC Americas Limited a few months before breach of the tailings storage facility.
This rather similar conclusion is from a report by BCG Engineering Inc. and is signed by a Senior Geotechnical Engineer:
Unfortunately, both engineering firms are among the many employed on the Site C project where building safe foundations are problematic, perhaps even impossible.
Financial Information Act reports show BC Hydro paid $330 million to AMEC in fiscal years 2011 through 2017. BGC received $7 million from the public utility in the same period. The numbers may explain why many in the engineering community wanted Site C construction to continue, regardless of environmental and cultural harms or associated costs to the public.