B.C. takes a step toward ensuring the polluter actually pays

Make a mess, clean it up. That’s what we’re taught at a young age.

There are few things that British Columbians agree on these days. Still, 90 percent agree that mining companies should “be required to pay to clean up costs for the environmental damage they cause,” according to a poll from Insights West.

Unfortunately, the polluter doesn’t always pay or clean up its mess. We have many abandoned and potentially contaminating mine sites littered throughout northwest B.C.

The Tulsequah Chief mine has been leaching toxic acid mine drainage for more 65 years into the Taku River. Banks Island Gold on Gitxaala territory dumped mine waste into the ocean and has yet to clean up the mess they left behind. Huckleberry mine has an estimated reclamation cost of nearly $50 million. Still, B.C. had only collected $32 million as last reported in 2020.

In 2016, the Auditor General highlighted the province’s total unbonded liability for mine reclamation was 1.2 billion dollars, which has stayed relatively consistent.

Finally, last week, the Ministry of Energy and Mines followed through on its commitment to reduce the risk to taxpayers by releasing its new mine reclamation bonding policy. Released on April 5, this policy is part of a provincial commitment and political mandate to ensure all large industrial projects are bonded.

The new policy may help close the public liability gap and is a step forward in making sure mine companies pay up-front to reclaim. Evidence shows that requiring up-front bonding incentivizes the use of less damaging mining practices, waste storage, and closure methods.

The policy requires bonding for environmental liability over a 100-year period, including water treatment (although these costs aren’t always easy to calculate in our climate emergency world). This may mean some mines needing perpetual treatment will not move ahead.

The policy requires annual reporting and a five-year cycle for updating reclamation plans, technically requiring incremental increases to reclamation bonds with increased disturbance. The policy also incentivizes mines to reclaim progressively as the mine operates.

Mines in the first and last five years of operations must submit 100 per cent of their estimated reclamation costs. However, the policy does give some leeway outside of those periods. It would be safest for the public if there was never a difference between mine reclamation liability estimates and bonds held by the government. However, this policy is a good step in the right direction.

As this is labelled an “interim” policy, we must see it codified in regulation with discretionary provisions shifted to more transparent and accountable decision-making. We also need to see the province address any gaps identified by Indigenous authorities who have long advocated for mines to be held responsible for the messes they create.

Despite the new policy, risks remain of underestimated reclamation costs, unexpected catastrophic events, or bankruptcy (when full security has not been required), causing liability to fall on taxpayers. Climate impacts like extreme floods, droughts, and heat domes may mean the risk of another Mount Polley-like disaster is growing. A public fund, secured through a small levy on production or existing royalty mechanisms, would provide additional security to cover reclamation and catastrophic event costs.

Demand for minerals used in renewable energy and transportation sources is set to grow exponentially. We are already experiencing unprecedented exploration in the northwest.

British Columbia must ensure its mining sector meets environmental and governance standards expected from investors, large purchasers and communities of a world-class mining sector. This includes ensuring that the polluter, not the taxpayer, pays for clean-up and guards against disasters.

With some improvements, including enforceable legislation and an industry-levied disaster fund, British Columbia can close the liability gap and ensure sufficient bonding exists so affected communities and future generations are protected from the growing liability of polluting mine waste sites.

— Nikki Skuce and Adrienne Berchtold