The Mount Polley Mine/Imperial Metals disaster is such that one scarcely knows where to start. Fortunately, the people of British Columbia have a writer like Stephen Hume, who in the Vancouver Sun tells chapter and verse about the failings of the Ministry of Environment’s statutory obligations to regulate.
You know, there must’ve been a date back when that all of the civic dignitaries and the executives of the company and a number of politicians had a glorious day opening the mine and telling everyone how safe it was and how the company’s record was perfect and that in the very unlikely event they missed something, why, there were always those faithful government inspectors to make sure that things were up to snuff.
Expect same (de)regulation of LNG, pipelines, tankers
This naturally got me thinking about the same things now being said about LNG plants and tankers; about Tar Sands pipelines and tankers. Same corporate public relations departments – same addle-headed politicians.
But, I can’t shake it! How come no one has to resign? This is a colossal screwup by the government of British Columbia. Is no one to blame? Whatever happened to the notion of ministerial responsibility?
I suppose the answer is that when you have political lightweights like the Christy Clark government, totally unmindful of their responsibility to stand by their actions, you’re not going to have anyone even pause for a moment to think that they should pay a price. The whole question of ministerial responsibility has become less and less fashionable as the years go by, but surely there must be some point where the screwup is so bad that someone must run up on their sword.
They should have seen this coming
Lest one think that the Clark government hasn’t had the faintest idea the trouble was brewing in the inspections department, Stephen Hume tells us that the University of Victoria’s Environment Law Center reported in 2012 that environmental assessment certificates issued by government were often “vague and unenforceable”… and that by 2008, the number of mine inspections had fallen to one half what they were in 2001. The Ministry of Environment staff shrank during that time by 25% and the chief mining inspector had insufficient staff to complete the annual the monitoring reports required. And – this has to shake you – the report said:
[quote]This ramshackle enforcement regime is not good enough for an industry that can create environmental and financial catastrophes.[/quote]
Thus the Clark government knew that their enforcement system was inadequate to the task, yet when that breach of public duty spawned disaster, they pay no price!
The Campbell/Clark liberal government has been playing Russian roulette with the safety of British Colombians since it took office in 2001.
Same lax regulations applied to fish farms, IPPs
You may remember that one of the first things this government did was return all of fines levied against fish farmers for illegal practices.
Then came the “raping” of our rivers by private power concerns who were given the opportunity to bankrupt BC Hydro at the same time. These private schemes, which put up dams on the rivers which they prefer to call weirs, are under strict guidelines as to how much water they can use and when, in order to protect the fish. The trouble is that the companies have paid no attention whatsoever to these guidelines unless it suited them and the government hasn’t enforced them, nor has it demonstrated any intention to.
Thus, when you look at the failures of the Ministry of Environment as outlined by Stephen Hume, you see a systemic avoidance of enforcement going right back to the days the Liberals were elected. Yet no minister nor the government need take any responsibility for this!
“Red Tape” and other euphemisms
Enforcement rules are usually referred to by industry and their captive politicians as “red tape” and “de-regulation” or “streamlining” become buzzwords. It’s assumed that if all of these silly bureaucrats would stop trying to enforce idiotic safety regulations, we would all make lots more money. The notion perpetuated by industry is that every rule and regulation is there to stop them making money and, of course, distributing that generously amongst the less well-off in the community, and that these stupid bloody rules should all be tossed aside or ignored; that government regulation, whether it be by way of safety in a factory or a mine, or protection of fish and wildlife, are all bureaucratic nuisances set in place by “socialists” to prevent the entrepreneur from doing great things.
This is the history of these matters. When you read about the struggles of labor unions to get essential safety features into the workplace and see just how minor those reforms were and the fuss the politicians and industrialists made, you can’t believe that caring human beings with souls were involved on the corporate and government side.
Corporations have but one objective
The problem with the general public is that by and large it doesn’t understand what corporations are all about. Companies have one sole purpose: making money for their shareholders. Every penny that is taken from that undertaking is a penny misspent. This is not some sort of socialistic cynicism – it’s simply describes the beast. It has always been that way and it always will be.
Does anyone seriously think that entrepreneurs would go out of their way to voluntarily provide safety regulations and environmental protection and things of that sort that were adverse to their ability to make money? History is crystal clear on the point.
Of course, there are areas where it makes sense for companies to do the right thing by the general public. But it has to make sense on the balance sheet.
What about salmon?
I haven’t spoken about the sockeye salmon. Here we are in a year where huge returns are expected and the Quesnel run may be destroyed. It’s too soon to know what the total impact will be but it bodes to be huge.
The sad thing here is we’re not talking about natural disasters but man-made disasters that could’ve been and often were predicted but ignored. We’re like Charlie Brown and football – we know Lucy’s going to pull it away at the last minute, but we play the game anyway and we always lose. It’s as if we don’t want to know the answers.
Just what are the dangers associated with an LNG tanker crash? What will be the consequences of a Tar Sands tanker crashing in one of our beautiful and sensitive fjords? What will be the consequences of a punctured pipeline in the rugged territory they pass through from Alberta to the BC coast?
This may seem unrelated to the Imperial Metals disaster, but it actually is very apropos. It is not just the likelihood of a disaster we must concern ourselves with but the extent of that disaster. We then must decide whether or not we’re going to take adequate steps to police these undertakings or just blissfully ignore them because the public relations departments of large companies tell us there’s nothing to worry about?
The Imperial Mine disaster story has legs. We now have in front of us a snapshot of what happens when large undertakings with potentially catastrophic consequences are not policed.
This is what happens when we leave it all to the Company.
This is what happens when a right-wing government takes over and decides to go easy on big business.
This is what happens when we allow ourselves to be deluded into buzz phrases such as “we’re being ruined by red tape”.
This is what happens when we turn a blind eye to common sense and assume that because nothing has happened yet, it’s not going to happen.
The Imperial Metals disaster proves, as if proof were necessary, that no large corporation will do anymore than it has to and then it will always place money in shareholders pockets ahead of money in public safety. It proves again, as if it were necessary, that governments in the pockets of industry will pay no attention to troublesome details like public safety and the security of our Wildlife.
The real question is what do we people think or care about this. If we believe that industry knows best and that our wellbeing depends upon our accepting their terms – so be it. We can’t be heard to complain about the consequences.
If, on the other hand, there is more to life than making money for foreign companies and we do care about the safety of our people, the preservation of our environment and the wellbeing of our wildlife, then we have to make some economic sacrifices. These economic sacrifices include not just passing regulations to ensure that those who invade our environment do so safely, but enforcing those regulations and being prepared to spend the money to do that.
Heads should roll on this one, but of course they won’t. Premier Clark hasn’t the faintest idea about responsibility of cabinet ministers to back up their mistakes with resignations. We the public should learn that laissez-faire government carries with it the inevitable consequence that the rich get richer and that the public and the environment in which they live get much the poorer.
If we don’t learn these lessons from this disaster, then we get what we bloody well deserve.