B.C.’s mines regulator failing at its job, says auditor general

The Mount Polley tailings pond breach was cited in the report as an example of the ministry failing at its job

A report from the office of Carol Bellringer recommends creating a regulator independent from the ministry 

The ministry responsible for regulating B.C.’s mining industry is failing at its job, concluded a harsh report from the office of B.C.’s Auditor General Carol Bellringer. Bellringer recommended that the government remove its mining compliance and enforcement program from the Ministry of Energy and Mines, stating that “the environmental risks of mining are increasing, but compliance and enforcement are decreasing,” in the audit released Tuesday.  

The report found that the Ministry of Energy and Mines had insufficient staff to handle the volume of permits and that the data systems used were inadequate. Consequently, mine inspections were deemed inadequate. In some cases, mining companies had not paid down the required security deposit that would cover the recovery costs of an accident—a liability that could cost the government up to $1 billion in the case of a disaster. The auditor general pointed to the Mount Polley tailings dam failure, which occurred during the course of the investigation, as a case-in-point of regulatory failure.

It’s a situation, according to the auditor general, where the regulator is “at risk of regulatory capture,” in that the ministry serves the economic interests of the industry, and not the public interest. Some of the symptoms listed included low levels of prosecution, a preference for informal recommendations and back-chanelling, and a flow of employees between the private and public sector.

The solution, Bellringer concluded, is to create an independent regulator at arm’s length from the Ministry of Energy and Mines.

“We found almost every one of our expectations for a robust compliance and enforcement program within the Ministry of the Environment and the Ministry of Energy and Mines were not met,” said Bellringer. “The compliance and enforcement activities of both [ministries] are not set up to protect the province from environmental risks.”

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Bill Bennett, the Minister of Mines and Energy, however, does not plan to resign. In an interview with CBC’s The Morning Edition, Bennett said that the review was no more than a “performance audit” and that he has no plans to quit.

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