In the eyes of at least four powerful environmental organizations, British Columbia (B.C.) appears to be Canada’s lone wolf of mining regulations, breaking away from the pack of three principal mining provinces that have seen the need for modern regulatory overhaul. Now, as tension increases around project developments, the organizations want B.C. to join the pack and increase environmental protection.
Following B.C.’s January 2013 major roundup conference for the mining industry, MiningWatch Canada, the David Suzuki Foundation, Rivers Without Borders and Friends of Clayoquot Sound have banded together to create a Top 40 list of mining reforms they say are desperately needed in B.C.
The reform list is meant to stimulate discussion, the groups said in a January 31, 2013 statement to media.
“Responsible political leadership in B.C. will mean taking a hard look at the Mineral Tenure Act and environmental assessment process to bring them into the 21st century so that they comply with existing aborignal law and citizens’ expectations,” announced Canada program co-ordinator for MiningWatch Canada, Ramsey Hart, in the joint statement.
These national non-governmental organizations (NGOs) are calling for legislative reforms in nine areas, each with a series of detailed sub-points to mirror overhauls made in provinces like Ontario. Some of the areas of focus include aboriginal rights, mineral tenure, land-use planning, environmental assessment, mine closure, environmental oversight, taxation, jobs, local benefits and abandoned mines.
B.C. is regarded as a major producer of base and precious metals, coal and industrial minerals. Copper and molybdenum ores are obtained from several big open-pit mines, the largest being the Highland Valley operation near Kamloops.
In January 2013, the Ministry of Mines, Energy and Natural Gas released its Provincial Summary Exploration and Mining in British Columbia 2012 report. The provincial summary report shows there are approximately 28 mine development projects under B.C. environmental review and seven in the Mines Act permit process.
In 2012, major expansions and upgrades occurred at many existing mines in B.C. Also, the province saw the opening of the New Afton mine. The Red Chris and Mt. Milligan mines are currently under construction, the provincial summary report says.
According to the government’s provincial summary report, the total value of mine production in B.C. for 2012 is estimated at $7.4 billion. Coal, copper, and molybdenum, respectively, remain the most sought after solid mine products by value.
The NGOs calling for mining reform cite B.C.’s Taseko Mines’ New Prosperity project as a glaring example of regulatory failure. The $1.1-billion gold and copper mine project originally required draining Fish Lake. The company has been rejected numerous times for an Environmental Assessment Certificate, and has even called on the federal government to limit First Nations’ input for the project.
The NGOs note that the B.C. government had actually approved the controversial Taseko project, which included using a lake for tailings disposal, but the federal government rejected the project.
“This [Taseko] project, which does not have the free prior and informed consent of First Nations and which has been unable to obtain environmental approvals for decades, continues to take up time and resources in a second round of environmental assessments,” says a joint written statement from the groups. “The company’s latest submissions to the Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency have been harshly criticized by federal and provincial agencies, First Nations and NGOs.”
In the group’s joint statement, John Werring, senior science and policy advisor with the David Suzuki Foundation says “B.C.’s mining framework is built on a foundation that is showing more and more structural cracks.” Reform is needed, he says, to ensure smoother processes for the future, not to mention less tension.
In late 2011, the B.C. government faced harsh criticism from environmentalists after minor changes to the Mines Act were viewed as paving the way for mining company projects at the expense of environmental protection. The changes came despite numerous provincial credits and incentives for B.C. mining companies. At the time, Mines Minister Rich Coleman said the amendments allowed companies to conduct low-risk explorations without going through a time-consuming permit process.
Coleman, however, has also defended B.C.’s environmental assessment process numerous times with the logic that because the process takes a long time, it is adequately protective.
Will Patric, executive director of Rivers Without Borders, said in the group’s joint statement that he hopes the province will recognize that “aggressive expansion” requires regulatory support.
"With the aggressive expansion of mining in B.C., concerns about damage to wild salmon, water quality and traditional uses of the land are growing across the province and in spilling over into southeast Alaska,” Patric says. “The industry and government needs to respond with changes that ensure mining development does not threaten these important resources.”