Opinion: We can expect more Mount Polley disasters

Environment: Deregulation chickens coming home to roost

By Fin Donnelly, Special to the Vancouver Sun

The Mount Polley mine tailings disaster that released more than 14 million cubic meters of metals-laden fine sand, toxic sludge and water into one of British Columbia’s most productive sockeye producing lakes is certainly one of the worst environmental disasters this province has experienced. While drinking water and fishing bans may have been recently lifted, the impact of this event will be felt by the community and environment for years to come.

As the cleanup continues, there is one thing we can agree on: this disaster is a wake-up call.

It is a harbinger of things to come if we don’t immediately restore environmental protections and oversight. Steps must be taken to ensure adequate review and regulation for ongoing and future development and we must make it a priority to protect the environment, including sensitive fisheries and ocean habitat.

If spawning grounds downstream of the mine are impacted, the spill is sure to pose a threat to the sockeye salmon and wildlife that depends on them. The impact on the sockeye will be felt by local First Nations, fishing communities and the tourism industry.

The total impact to the B.C. economy is currently unknown, but these sectors combine to employ tens of thousands of people and contribute hundreds of millions to our GDP.

Liberal and Conservative governments have chipped away at environmental assessment and protection laws. Conservatives have cut our capacity to address risks to the fishing sector by slashing the Department of Fisheries and Oceans budget by more than $100 million per year. Ultimately, these governments made it easier for catastrophes to happen.

The Conservative government, through its abusive omnibus budget bills, has also weakened the protection of fish habitat by gutting the Fisheries Act. They have rewritten the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act, eliminating the requirement for federal assessment on many projects including some mines, and overhauled the Navigable Waters Protection Act, removing more than 99 per cent of Canada’s lakes and rivers.

In this new dangerously deregulated environment, Conservatives are promoting the risky Northern Gateway pipeline, which will put thousands of rivers and lakes at risk of environmental disaster. The government is fooling itself if it thinks British Columbians will trust the process following the Mount Polley mine disaster.

While the B.C. government’s call for an independent investigation is a positive first step, both provincial and federal governments must commit to full cooperation and accountability — that includes a commitment to implementing forthcoming recommendations. The Conservatives’ continued refusal to implement Justice Cohen’s recommendations following the $26-million judicial inquiry into the collapse of the sockeye salmon is a shameful waste of resources, one British Columbians should not tolerate.

Canada’s NDP calls on the Conservative government to support the independent investigation and to immediately offer resources to mitigate the environmental impact of the Mount Polley mine disaster. To prevent such disasters in the future, the government must reverse the devastating deregulation created by their reckless environmental protection changes in Canada.

Without committing to these actions, there is no guarantee British Columbians will get the timely answers they deserve, and there is no guarantee an event like this will be prevented from happening again.

We must prevent this sort of disaster from being repeated — that is why Canada’s NDP are calling on the Conservatives to stop putting their industry friends before British Columbians and reverse damaging cuts to environmental protection.

Fin Donnelly is the Official Opposition deputy critic for Fisheries and Oceans and the member of Parliament for New Westminster-Coquitlam and Port Moody.

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