The B.C. government is moving to restore confidence in its mine inspection system with a $6 million budget increase and a new office dedicated to overseeing major mines.
Premier Christy Clark announced the changes Monday at the annual B.C. Association for Mineral Exploration conference in Vancouver. The money comes from contingency funds in the current budget, and will be added to the base budget of the Ministry of Energy and Mines for future years.
Mine inspections have been under scrutiny since the collapse of the tailings dam at Mount Polley copper-gold mine near Williams Lake last summer. Energy and Mines Minister Bill Bennett at first insisted that geotechnical inspections of large B.C. mines were unaffected by budget cuts that reduced inspections of gravel mining and other operations, but Monday’s announcement tells a different story.
“Since 2011, we’ve made significant improvements to increase geotechnical inspections, hire additional staff and reduce the turnaround time for notice of work permits,” Bennett said in a statement after the premier’s announcement.
NDP leader John Horgan said the premier’s announcement appears to be in preparation for what he expects will be “a very damning report” on the Mount Polley situation, which is subject to multiple investigations after the earth dam around its tailings pond abruptly breached and released millions of tonnes of water and mine tailings.
Horgan said it’s unusual for any government to fund essential work like mine inspections out of contingency funds, and he’s not convinced that it really has been happening. The government refused opposition calls to release all provincial mine inspection records, instead appointing an independent expert panel to review the Mount Polley events.
Bennett visited Alaska in November to reassure state officials and fishermen about B.C. mining oversight, after the province issued an environmental certificate to develop a major metal ore deposit near the Alaska border.
The ministry expects to collect an extra $3 million a year from additional fees collected from working mines.