Before mining companies can get digging in B.C., the province will have to shovel its way through some 6,915 backlogged applications for environmental permits.
That backlog is a direct result of cuts to front-line staff in the province’s environment and natural resources ministries, says the B.C. Government and Service Employees’ Union (BCGEU).
Union officials made the extent of the backlog public last week after retrieving the numbers with a Freedom of Information request.
“The size of the permit backlog demonstrates the impacts of these cuts,” said the union in a Nov. 14 release.
Premier Christy Clark said in October that the province will add $24 million to tackle the backlog, but the BCGEU said that extra funding “does not come close to repairing the damage.”
In Victoria, MLAs on both sides of the legislature agree that the backlog is hurting the northern B.C. economy.
John Rustad, the BC Liberal MLA for Nechako Lakes, said environmental assessments need to speed up whether they okay new projects or not.
“If the answer is no, the answer is no,” he said. “But we need to get to an answer much faster.”
For example, Rustad said a small gold mine north of Fort St. James had to lay off 40 people this year because they didn’t get a permit to extend their tailings pond in time for pre-winter construction.
“When they finally get the permit and are able to do the work next summer, they’ll likely have to look for a lot of fresh people because people have moved on,” he said.
Rustad agrees that a lack of staff contributed to the backlog, and said that is why the government committed the $24 million to the natural resource ministries.
Doug Donaldson, the NDP MLA for Stikine, said that even with the extra $24 million, the ministries will take at least two or three years to clear the backlog because it has been building for several years.
“There is a direct link to cuts in the ministries over the last three to five years,” said Donaldson.
Donaldson recently co-chaired a multi-party committee that toured B.C. for input on the 2012 budget.
In its report, the committee listed more efficient permitting its top priorities for 2012.
The report quoted Gavin Dirom of the B.C. Association for Mineral Exploration, who said slow permits cause trouble outside B.C’s borders.
“Right now we do not have an efficient permitting process, and in a competitive investment world, it’s critical in order to attract the global investors,” said Dirom.
With a list of 75 recommendations, the 2012 budget consultation report will go to the Minister of Finance to consider.