The Red Chris Mine, pictured in 2017, has a massive dam holding back mine waste upstream of the Stikine River that flows into Southeast Alaska. (Photo courtesy of Garth Lenz)

The province of British Columbia is taking public input on ways to reform its mining regulations. The ministry says it’s partially in response to the Mount Polley mine disaster.

The tailings dam failure in 2014 was closely watched in Alaska due to fears of a similar breach in one of the region’s many mines in the transboundary watershed.

The Narwhal, an online environmental magazine based in the province’s capital, has reported on criticism of B.C.’s mining sector extensively.

CoastAlaska’s Jacob Resneck spoke with the The Narwhal’s managing editor Carol Linnitt in Victoria, B.C. about the province’s latest pledge to reform.

Jacob Resneck: Are these kind of reforms, the types of things that critics of some of the mining practices in British Columbia have been asking for?

Carol Linnitt: You know, on paper, these recommendations look good. But as is always the case with these kinds of, of policy reviews, the devil’s always in the details. And there’s been a lot of pressure on the province to basically have a more independent compliance and enforcement regime for mines. And that’s another thing that they’re talking about doing here. In these proposed amendments.

Of course, they’re not giving any specifics. It’s just, you know, this is a bullet point list of three things. So we–

JR: Did I hear you correctly, Carol? I had thought this was a summary, that, there’s actually more details than have been offered–

CL: They’ve just said, the ministry is proposing the following amendments; they give like a three-point bullet list. And then they’ve asked people to fill out a survey.

The reform proposals are limited to a brief summary.

JR: One of the things that I didn’t see in this summary is the issue of financial assurances. In the state of Alaska, if you want to get a mine permitted, you have to post a bond, just to make sure — in case something catastrophic happens — or the company runs out of money.

CL: You’ve hit the nail on the head; that is, without a doubt the biggest elephant-in-the-room when it comes to mining in British Columbia. And it’s actually a pretty unsexy topic. It’s not necessarily very clear to the public what’s going on when you start talking about unsecured financial cleanup liabilities, it’s like, what are you even talking about? But to drive the point home, for example, there’s a Vancouver-based mining company called Teck Resources, Ltd. They operate in B.C. and they also operate in Alaska.

In Alaska, they have one mine there, and the state government required them to provide the full security of the estimated reclamation costs, which were $562 million. And that same company, which operates numerous mine in B.C. has unsecured reclamation costs of $700 million.

Carol Linnitt is managing editor and a co-founder of The Narwhal, a nonprofit online magazine that covers Canada’s ecology.

JR: We can’t talk about transboundary mining without talking about Mount Polley. Now, it’s not technically on a transboundary system. But bring us up to date since its tailings dam collapsed in 2014.

CL: I’m glad you brought Mount Polley up. And I do think that what happened at that mine and and watching how things unfolded in the aftermath has been a bit of a test case for some of these big mines on the border with Alaska.

So yeah, in 2014, a catastrophic collapse of a tailings pond, the equivalent of 10,000 Olympic sized swimming pools of mining waste flooded into Quennell Lake, a source of drinking water. And this spill was so big, it took 12 hours to spill — it’s just incredible. The Mount Polley mine is owned by Imperial Metals, and they’ve come across hard financial times; they’re on the brink of bankruptcy. We’ve reported on what that actually looks like. And the company just actually sold off a 70% stake of one of its major mines on the border with Alaska, the Red Chris Mine to an Australian company called Newcrest mining.

So here this this is the problem with not having those financial securities established before the fact is that companies hit on financial hard times, and then they just abandon these mines and they abandon those, those financial liabilities and cleanup costs reclamation cost to taxpayers and some of these mines, they require permanent water treatment facilities like in perpetuity forever — and those are very expensive.

So looking at the Red Chris Mine on the border with Alaska, the same company built that same mine but on a way larger scale with a way bigger tailings pond. And now they’re indicating to the world that they’re actually not capable of managing that mine and they want out.

So it’s, it’s worrisome and a lot of people, they still want to talk about the Mount Polley mine because it was basically an example of how companies are not responsible for their liability and basically the environmental mess that they’re creating in this massive resource extraction project from the get-go and it shows exactly how they can slip out of other forms of responsibility, including penalties and fines and cleanup responsibilities all throughout the process.