Major issues remain unresolved four years after catastrophic Mount Polley dam failure
VANCOUVER — British Columbia’s Mount Polley mining disaster bears remarkable similarities to a catastrophe at a Brazilian mine the next year and points to the strong possibility of more environmental calamities ahead, warns a new report that examines both events.
The tailings pond spill at the Mount Polley mine in central British Columbia in August 2014 marked the single worst mining disaster in Canadian history. Just one year later, an even more horrendous spill occurred at the Mariana mine in Brazil, killing 19 people and leaving hundreds homeless, and contaminating the Rio Doce river system.
“In both cases, very similar things happened. The companies rapidly expanded production when metal prices rose, made generous political contributions to governments, and engaged in lobbying activities. When the boom in metals prices ended, they reduced maintenance and inspections of their faulty dams, and set the stage for the disasters to come,” says report author Judith Marshall.
Marshall’s unique report examining similar mining disasters in a developed country and in a “developing” nation, was published today by the Corporate Mapping Project, Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, Wilderness Committee, and Brazil-based PoEMAS (Grupo Política, Economia, Mineração, Ambiente e Sociedade).
The report concludes that the corporate owners of both mines — Imperial Metals in the case of Mount Polley; Vale and BHP Billiton in the case of the Samarco Mining in Mariana — “enjoyed close relationships with major political parties and government officials.”
Corporate political donations gave governments in BC and Brazil alike vested political and financial interests “in promoting the mining sector and prioritizing the needs of industry” over public safety, the environment, local communities and the rights of Indigenous peoples. In both cases, governments became captive to the industry they were meant to regulate, Marshall found.
In the case of BC, the government has yet to act on crucial recommendations from a report by the province’s independent Auditor General’s office, which warned after the Mount Polley disaster that there needed to be a clear separation between the government’s promotion of the mining sector and its monitoring and enforcement efforts.
“The more one analyzes the tailings dam disasters at Mount Polley and Mariana, the clearer it becomes clear that these breaches were a result of regulatory capture and a failure to consider alternatives to the present state of mining,” says Marshall.
The report notes recent research suggesting that if things remain unchanged in BC there could be two dam failures similar to the Mount Polley event every 10 years and six every 30.
Marshall points out that the new BC government has taken important steps forward by introducing a ban on corporate and union political donations, reviewing the “professional reliance” model, and committing to implement the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, but remains concerned that the BC government has failed to address some of the major underlying issues that led to the disaster.
“The Mount Polley Mine has reopened, and mining waste is once again being managed using the same technology that had failed — large tailings ‘ponds’ — despite the availability of alternatives. Additionally, mining companies are still not required to set aside funds sufficient to pay for environmental reclamation in the case of a disaster, and inspections are still being carried out by the same body that had downplayed structural flaws and ignored warnings from workers prior to the 2014 breach.”
Marshall warns: “If mining companies are allowed to carry on business as usual, we risk more catastrophic tailings dam failures.”
The full report — Tailings dam spills at Mount Polley and Mariana: Chronicles of disasters foretold — and summary can be found at: corporatemapping.ca/tailings-disasters
For more information or to set up interviews, please contact Lindsey Bertrand at [email protected] or 604-801-5121 ext 238.
Author: Lindsey Bertrand
Lindsey Bertrand is Communication & Digital Engagement Specialist at the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives – BC Office.