By Cormac McGee
Out at the Mount Polley mine site in south-central British Columbia in mid-September 2014, Gordon Hoekstra found himself with a few hours to kill before his flight back to Vancouver. The mine’s dammed tailings pond—which holds fine rock particles left over after the ore is extracted—had breached a few weeks earlier on August 4, 2014, spilling 25 million cubic metres of water and tailings into the neighbouring Polley Lake and Hazeltine Creek. The Vancouver Sun reporter was struggling to get more information because Imperial Metals, the mine’s owner and operator, and B.C.’s Liberal government refused to release much about the mine’s condition before the disaster. But Hoekstra had a hunch where he could find something.
He sped south to the Cariboo Regional District Library in Williams Lake, where he found a binder stuffed with environmental and reclamation reports showing what the company had been doing to monitor environmental issues around the mine site. There were also damage inspection reports up to 2010. Hoekstra had struck silver (reports up to 2014 would have been gold). This was the first time any journalist had seen an inspection report since the spill.
Still, reporters want more. Some of the annual inspection and safety reports they are seeking date back as far as 1992. But the provincial government won’t release the documents because it says the information could affect any one of three investigations into the breach. Without access to this material, journalists are unable to fully report on the situation, leaving the public without critical knowledge about one of B.C.’s largest environmental disasters in decades. Now, the story has shifted from the mining disaster itself to political stubbornness. Hoekstra isn’t buying the government’s reasons for not releasing more information, adding that this isn’t a criminal investigation and no witnesses will be tainted. Engineers with the three investigative panels have these reports, but the public doesn’t.
On an episode of CBC Radio One’s B.C. Almanac, Minister of Energy and Mines Bill Bennett said the breach wasn’t predictable because the dam’s sensors didn’t show any movement. But in the 2010 inspection report, Hoekstra found that 40 percent of these sensors had been broken for four years. He asked Imperial Metals about this, but the company wouldn’t comment, other than an online statement saying the safety issues outlined in the report had been addressed. He’s frustrated that he can’t get these routine documents, but he’s trying to not let it disrupt his work: “You redouble your efforts and find whatever alleys you can go down,” he says. “Including leafing through old reports and searching dusty library shelves that haven’t been looked at in 10 years.”
This secrecy has gone on for too long for Calvin Sandborn, a law professor and legal director of the University of Victoria Environmental Law Clinic. He filed a submission to B.C.’s Information and Privacy Commissioner Elizabeth Denham, asking her to investigate the government’s “apparent and potential breaches of the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act” by keeping the documents hidden. The commissioner’s office has opened a file in response to Sandborn’s submission. He points out that mine and tailings dam inspections in Nunavut are available online. “But our government is basically saying they’ve appointed engineers who are not accessible to the public who will go off and solve the problem,” he says, adding that anybody can find health inspections for restaurants in Victoria online, so why not dam reports?
Trouble getting access to the records also hampered other journalists. When interning at The Tyee in August, Maura Forrest worked on the Mount Polley story. She tried to verify Bennett’s claim that no major tailings ponds had breached in at least 40 years. “It occurred to me that it was a statement that was very easy to make,” she says. Forrest searched for provincial and national records of mine spills in Canada, but couldn’t find anything. “Nobody knows the history except them,” she says of the provincial government. What she did find was a case similar to Mount Polley. In October 2013, 670,000 cubic metres of murky water filled with sediment poured out of a containment pond at the Obed mine in west-central Alberta and into two small creeks and the Athabasca River. The government released little information to the public and there have been no final reports on what caused the leak.
While she was able to find only a few cases of documented spills, Forrest admits she wasn’t able to conduct an extensive search. Her position at the Tyee had her covering other stories and publishing every other day, so she didn’t have the time or resources to research Mount Polley further or file freedom of information requests. With no new information available, she put her interest in the story on hold and focused on the daily news cycle. “It means you’re very much at the mercy of what the government chooses to release,” she says. “That was frustrating.”
Such understandable annoyance aside, Sean Holman, a journalism professor at Mount Royal University in Calgary, says complacency is partly to blame for weak freedom of information laws and journalists need to push for change. “We have a ‘father knows best’ government,” he says, adding that we allow that culture of secrecy to continue to exist. “This is ultimately as much our fault as it is the government’s and it’s compromising our ability to do our jobs.” He points out that journalists are the principal users of public records in the public interest. Few other people have this mandate. He thinks many journalists feel uncomfortable advocating for the changes necessary to remedy this problem—such as stronger freedom of information laws—because they’re not lobbyists or activists. “If we don’t advocate on these issues,” he says. “I’m not sure who will.”
While Holman is focusing on the bigger picture, Hoekstra is still chipping away at the Mount Polley story, painting a partial picture of what happened bit by bit. He’s quick to admit there won’t be a timely release of information. The office of the information and privacy commissioner granted the government a two-month extension for responding to his freedom of information requests, and until then there’s not much he can do. Until Hoekstra gets his hands on documents outlining the mine’s condition, British Columbians won’t get a better understanding of why the Mount Polley disaster happened.