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Union calls for changes in mining safety oversight

Mount Polley mine spill prompts calls for better health and safety oversight in British Columbia


(Canadian OH&S News) — In the wake of the disaster at the Mount Polley gold and copper mine in British Columbia in August, when a tailings dam failure spilled an estimated 25 million cubic metres of water and mine tailings into Quesnel Lake, District 3 of the United Steelworkers (USW) is demanding a change regarding oversight of health and safety in the mining sector.

The B.C. Ministry of Energy and Mines has been in charge of regulating mining safety since 1877; as a result, the prevention jurisdiction of WorkSafeBC, the province’s workers’ compensation board, doesn’t extend to mines that are covered by the Mines Act. This currently poses a potential danger to both mine workers and the environment, according to Stephen Hunt, director of USW District 3, which covers the four western provinces and the territories.

“The government is high on promotion of the extractive industries, and they’re going to promote at all costs, at the expense of health and safety and the environment,” Hunt charged. “To me, it’s like the fox inside the chicken house.”

He cited a story published in the Globe and Mail on Oct. 14, alleging that there had been no workplace inspections at Mount Polley in 2010 and 2011, despite reports of a crack in the tailings dam. “Workplace inspections were down dramatically over the last several years because of budget cuts within the government,” Hunt argued. “The WCB doesn’t have to rely on the budget for the government; they generate their own funds based on users.”

The B.C. government’s annual Chief Inspector of Mines reports have noted that 13 mine workers in the province have been killed at work and an additional 423 injured since 2000. Over the same period, B.C. mine inspectors have issued more than 26,000 health and safety orders in response to safety violations.

But despite the obvious dangers of working in mines, Hunt said, the province’s mining sector has developed a reputation for being safe — and his union may have contributed to that.

“We’ve negotiated language in collective agreements that far exceed the health and safety regiments that the government has put in,” he explained. “We have in our mining agreements the right to refuse dangerous work. You don’t see that in very many collective agreements around the country, but in mining in British Columbia especially, we have it. We have the right to participate in health and safety committees.”

Hunt said that a tailings dam failure as bad as the Mount Polley one had never occurred in B.C. before. “They’re calling it the worst environmental failure in mining history in British Columbia,” he said. “A tailings dam failure like that ought not to ever happen, and you wonder where the labour leaders were on this one.

“We should be building structures, especially to protect the environment, that don’t fail.”