Bennett, Macdonald tangle over Mt. Polley

Premier should hold Minister Bill Bennett accountable, Macdonald says; Bennett vows to resign if his Ministry found negligent

  • Sep. 10, 2014 7:00 a.m.

CAROLYN GRANT

Two old political foes are going at it again over the Mt. Polley tailings spill.

Columbia River-Revelstoke MLA Norm Macdonald, Mines and Energy critic for the NDP, is calling on Minister of Energy and Mines Bill Bennett to step aside and Bennett has said that he will resign — if his Ministry is found negligent.

Macdonald has just returned from a trip to Quesnel Lake, Polley Lake and the Mount Polley mine site.

“We had a tour of the lakes, saw where the debris and tailings went in,” he said. “We travelled by boat over a vast plume of material suspended in the water.

“Until you see it, it’s difficult to comprehend the scope of the vast amount of material that left the tailings enclosure”

Macdonald was also given a tour of the mine site itself and attended a public meeting held by Imperial Metals, the mine’s owner.

He says there is tremendous distrust among community members about what they are being told, and frustration over the lack of solid information.

And that’s on the BC  Liberals, Macdonald says.

“In response to this crisis, the BC Liberals are doing what they always do. Just like their response to the mill explosions in Burns Lake and Prince George, where people lost their lives, they try to pretend that they are not responsible. They claim they have the best regulations in the world, and what occurred was beyond their control.

“The Mount Polley breach was not an accident. The area was not subject to a catastrophic weather event. There was no earthquake. There is no suggestion of an act of terror. It simply failed.

“And Bill Bennett, the Minister responsible for mines, knew there were real concerns with the Mount Polley tailings enclosure prior to the breach, yet he did nothing.

“Minister Bennett knew that the government had allowed expansion of mining at the site without dealing with the problem of where to put the tailings from the increased activity. Minister Bennett knew the original engineers for the tailing enclosure had walked away stating serious concerns about the project. Minister Bennett supported drastic cuts to ministry staff responsible for oversight and enforcement.”

Bennett says it would better to let the investigation into exactly what happened proceed before pointing fingers.

“The cause of the Mt. Polley tailings dam failure is unknown but I have appointed a world class independent team of geoscientists to investigate the failure and report back to government and First Nations,” he said. “Tailings dams in Canada fail rarely. 1948 is when the last BC dam was breached. It is dishonest to suggest government could have known the event would happen or that it was not an ‘accident’.

“These dams are monitored by electronic sensors deep inside the dam walls for moisture and movement. The investigation will show whether the company knew there were looming problems. The dam is watched daily by qualified mine staff and inspected annually by ministry staff.

Bennett says his Ministry inspects mines regularly and was at the Mt. Polley site in May.

“There has been no reduction of tailings ponds and dams inspections as stated by the NDP. Mt Polley has had over 100 inspections since the mine opened.”

“As minister, I had zero notice of the accident but was on the ground the next day looking at the site and meeting with the community. My professional staff advise me that they had no reason to suspect such a rare occurrence would happen.

“From 1997 when the mine opened (NDP approved original design of the dam) to present, there has been one minor issue of non-compliance at the pond, ie water level too high in May, 2014. The company was told to bring down the level into compliance and did so. To suggest that I or my staff ‘knew’ and did nothing about a potential accident that could have killed and injured people is about as low and dirty a comment I have experienced in 14 years of provincial politics. I suggest Mr. Macdonald should consider quitting politics because he fast turning into an angry, bitter man.”

However, Macdonald says the B.C. Liberals are continuing a legacy of making information about what happens on public lands difficult, and are making a difficult situation in the area of the spill more difficult because people cannot trust what they are being told.

“Minister Bennett must step aside. British Columbians cannot trust him to be open about what really happened. He cannot be trusted to make sure other tailings facilities are safe. Ministers who fail on such a massive scale should be held accountable by the Premier.”

Bennett says he will take responsibility should his Ministry be found negligent.

“I have stated publicly that if the independent investigation proves that my ministry was negligent and caused this accident, I will take personal responsibility for my ministry and resign. I have confidence in my ministry staff and in our policies and rules, but I will not be the judge of that and neither will the NDP.

“The experts say the odds are far greater that Mr. Macdonald will be struck by lightning or crash on his next flight, than a mine tailings dam will breach,” Bennett said. “He can make all the ridiculous statements he wants. I will wait for the independent experts to figure out what happened and to tell us if government andor the industry need to make changes in policy and routines.”

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