The owner of the Canadian mine that suffered a disastrous dam breach in August might face sanctions as serious as criminal penalties, British Columbia government officials said on Wednesday.
Decisions on corrective and possibly punitive steps will be made after provincial officials learn the findings of three separate investigations into the Mount Polley Mine dam failure, said Bill Bennett, British Columbia's minister of energy and mines.
The Aug. 4 dam failure, though unprecedented for British Columbia, undercut confidence in the safety of mining in the province and around the world, Bennett told an audience at the Alaska Miners Association annual convention in Anchorage.
"If it could happen there, where else can it happen? And that's a question that's on all of our minds, I think," he said.
The Mount Polley dam breach has been cited by opponents of the controversial Pebble mine as a harbinger of risks that project poses to Alaska's salmon-rich Bristol Bay region. Mount Polley is considered a moderate-sized mine for British Columbia; the proposed Pebble copper and gold project would be much bigger, with a much bigger tailings dam and much bigger potential damages, critics say.
Mount Polley's woes also concern fishermen and environmentalists in Southeast Alaska, many of them already on edge because of spreading mine development just over the border in British Columbia. Those mines, upstream from Alaska fisheries, pose risks of pollution that would cross the international border, Southeast Alaska fishing groups claim.
Bennett, who is in Alaska to meet with state officials, Alaska fishermen and others worried about transboundary mining problems, said the Mount Polley dam breach was out of character for the mine's owner, Imperial Metals Corp.
Although he is not an engineer or miner, "I know enough about it to know good companies and companies that aren't so good. And this is a good company," he said. "This company was not a bad actor. This company was not out of compliance on a regular basis or anything. The people care. They were extremely distraught when this happened."
That is "not an excuse" for the breach, and not an attempt to minimize impacts of the event, which sent water and waste rushing out so fast that some of it swept upstream as well as downstream, he said.
"It's an ugly sight," he said. "It's a huge breach."
Bennett has appointed three independent experts to investigate the mine and its accident. The experts also have the authority to investigate the way provincial agencies oversaw and regulated the mine, he told the Alaska audience.
All concerned are on "pins and needles" to find out "what they're going to recommend and whether or not they're going to find a single actual cause," Bennett said. The experts' report is due on Jan. 31.
Another inquiry, an internal investigation by provincial Ministry of Energy and Mines and Ministry of Environment, will take longer, said David Morel, assistant deputy minister for mines and mineral resources.
"That may lead to charges. I'm not saying it's going to, but there may be some charges under the (provincial mines) act, or some other criminal charges," Morel said.
Another review, by British Columbia's chief mines inspector, is examining the safety of all mine tailings ponds in the province, Morel said.
Despite the magnitude of the dam breach and the volume of materials released, Bennett said the accident appears to have had a negligible impact to fish.
"They've killed more fish doing fish-tissue samples," he said. "We know of one trout that died as a result of the accident."
Pebble threatened but not dead
Aside from his update on Mount Polley, Bennett was critical of or the "Bristol Bay Forever" ballot initiative that Alaska voters passed by a 65-35 percent margin on Tuesday. That initiative requires any large-scale metals mine in the Bristol Bay Fisheries Reserve area to receive special legislative clearance before being permitted.
Bennett said the initiative harms "professional public servants" who review mine plans and creates a disincentive to investment.
"By subjecting the work that's been done by these professional public servants to a political debate, you know, in public -- I'm a politician, have been for 14 years, I know what sort of debate that can elicit -- I think it must be extremely discouraging for the public servants who were given this task of analyzing the project," he said. "For potential investors, it can't be a positive sign in terms of, 'I think I'm going to take my half a billion dollars to invest in a project in Alaska.'"
Bennett drew applause from the mining-industry audience with his next line: "I certainly hope we never go that route in British Columbia."
The chairman of the company seeking to build Pebble said Thursday that a legislative veto of the mine is unlikely, despite the just-passed Bristol Bay Forever initiative.
If the Pebble Partnership gets a development application submitted, reviewed and approved -- a process that could take 10 years -- the Legislature is almost certain to approve the project, John Shively, the company's chairman, said in a presentation at the miners' convention.
"First of all, we'll have proved that we're not going to be a danger to the fishery, otherwise we won't get through the permitting process," Shively said. "Secondly, Pebble's on state land, so the state has royalty, the state has taxes, the state's going to get the economic benefit."
The requirement that the Legislature express its approval in law is the real threat, Shively said.
"If they pass a law, then there can be a referendum that undoes the law," he said. "So really, we never have a permit. And, quite conceivably, we can spend whatever it's going to be -- five, six, eight billion dollars -- building the project, be in operation and somebody can come along with a referendum that undoes the law that says we can proceed, and we're out of business."
Such a scenario would amount to a violation of the Constitution's separation-of-powers protections, Shively said. Though the Pebble Partnership failed to convince the courts to throw out the initiative prior to the election, a new legal challenge could focus on that issue, he said.
"Our plan is at some point to test that theory, and there are probably a couple of other theories that we felt were not ripe for judicial review prior to the people voting on the initiative."
Though the project has endured numerous setbacks -- voter approval of the recent initiative, opposition from the Environmental Protection Agency and the dropout of its moneyed partner, mining giant Anglo American -- the Pebble mine remains a viable project, Shively said.
"Despite what the Juneau Empire said about Pebble being dead, we're not dead," he said, citing an Oct. 30 editorial in the capital city's newspaper. "It's a great prospect. It's a great state asset. And someday it's going to be developed."
But one prominent Pebble opponent was skeptical of Shively's claims. The 65 percent approval won by the Bristol Bay Forever initiative was a clear mandate, said Anders Gustafson, executive director of the Renewable Resources Foundation, a fishing-oriented group that has been one of the main Pebble opponents.
Gustafson said he would not be surprised to see the Pebble Partnership challenge the just-passed initiative, but he questions Shively's scenario of an operating mine being closed by public referendum.
"He's making assumption on assumption. That's not a theoretical debate I'd like to carry on," Gustafson said. "He's got to face the fact that the majority of the people are against Pebble in Alaska."
Gustafson also disputed Shively's characterization of the mine as viable. The partnership has only one member, Canadian junior Northern Dynasty Minerals Ltd., a company that has yet to build a mine, he said. "They're not even a partnership," he said.