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August 12, 2014

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BC Liberals must reinvest in environmental standards and enforcement

When I saw the images on TV and the internet of the tailings pond beach at the Mount Polley mine earlier this month my first thought was that there must be some mistake, that things like this don’t happen in BC.

How wrong I was—and how wrong the BC Liberal government has been to think the same thing.

This disaster shows the real world impact of funding cuts to environmental monitoring and enforcement under the BC Liberal government. We won’t know for some time how long the impacts of this will be felt, nor will we know whether the water in Quesnel Lake will ever return to its previous, pristine state.

The tailings pond breach should never have happened, full stop. It’s not as if it was caused by a so-called “act of God” like an earthquake. This was a man-made disaster, and 12 years of BC Liberal inaction—and action—made it much more likely to happen. Gutting environmental regulations and drastic cuts to monitoring and enforcement has a cost, but the BC Liberal government’s unrelenting focus has been on getting so-called “red tape” out of the way of profit.

Now don’t get me wrong, there’s nothing wrong with profit—without the revenues that flow to the provincial government from resource industries, we wouldn’t be able to provide much in the way of public services. But resource extraction has to be done responsibly, and under this government resource industries have too often become virtually self-regulating.

What we’ve seen at Mount Polley is a disgrace. There are many unanswered questions, but there is no doubt we need an independent inquiry to get to the bottom of what went wrong. To see Premier Christy Clark and Mines Minister Bill Bennett ducking for cover and worried only about their collective political behinds is disgusting and is the opposite of leadership.

Bennett’s comment this week comparing the release of millions of litres of highly toxic tailings to naturally occurring avalanches in the back country is just the latest example. It’s time for the Liberals to stop their political posturing, agree to an independent inquiry and, most importantly, reinvest in environmental standards and enforcement so we never see another disaster like Mount Polley in BC again.

Mark Hancock is President of CUPE BC.