British Columbia’s chief mining regulator refuses to move compliance and enforcement to a separate agency, despite three reports that say design issues contributed to the massive Mount Polley Mine spill more than two years ago.

The Ministry of Energy and Mines and the Ministry of Environment (MoE), also involved in mine permitting, have been under scrutiny since the breach that dumped 4.5 billion gallons of water and 10.3 million cu yd of tailings and construction waste into two lakes, a creek and the Fraser River, polluting drinking water and potentially affecting spawning grounds for salmon there.

Neither agency nor mine owner Imperial Metals Corp. has been prosecuted, though a MoE Conservation Officer Service investigation continues.

However, Carol Bellringer, the province auditor general, wants action taken.

Our expectation is that this new unit would not reside within this ministry.

–B.C. Auditor General Carol Bellringer

“We recommend that the government of British Columbia create an integrated and independent compliance and enforcement unit for mining activities, with a mandate to ensure the protection of the environment. Given that the Ministry of Mines (MEM) is at risk of regulatory capture, primarily because MEM’s mandate includes a responsibility to both promote and regulate mining, our expectation is that this new unit would not reside within this ministry,” she said in a report issued in May.

The ministries “are focusing on permit applications” to meet the province’s goals for new and expanded mines; further, they are dedicating “few resources” to monitoring, compliance and enforcement, she said.

“We found almost every one of our expectations for a robust compliance and enforcement program within the MEM and the MoE were not met,” Bellringer said.

The “compliance and enforcement activities of the mining sector are inadequate to protect the province from significant environmental risks,” she said.

Bill Bennett, mines minister, balked, and MEM said in a statement that it is “not yet convinced that the board or the mines inspectors need to be outside the ministry.

“There is considerable value in having ministry permitting staff with technical knowledge involved in inspections and compliance and enforcement,” it continued.

[We are] not yet convinced that the board or the mines inspectors need to be outside the ministry.

– Energy and Mines Minister Bill Bennett

Instead, Bennett set up an in-house board that includes the MEM and MoE deputy ministers as well as the associate deputy minister of the Environmental Assessment Office.

The board’s duty is to “provide guidance and oversight to the full scope of compliance and oversight for mines.” It also will supervise plans for “proactive annual activities based on a risk-based approach” and strategic improvements for effectiveness.

No legislative action on the report has been taken and none is likely until after the May 2017 elections, said John Horgan, leader of the opposition New Democratic Party.

Compliance and enforcement under Bennett have been “inadequate at best,” he said.

Bellringer’s report also said MEM estimates of public liability for environmental damage totals more than $2.1 billion, but only about $900 million in company securities are on hand.

The ministry did accept the 17 other auditor recommendations, including taking action on the securities gap. The ministry now says it had $1.07 billion in securities in March 2016.

“Permit holders are responsible for all costs associated with the mine, including reclamation and remediation costs,” the statement said.

The in-house board is looking at how other jurisdictions determine the necessary amount and kind of security. The board is to have a plan in place by early 2017.

Mining is a major part of British Columbia’s economy, with 30,000 people employed in mining and related sectors.

Meanwhile, Mount Polley Mine has resumed gold and copper extraction at its open-pit facility, after Imperial Metals spent more than $70 million on cleanup. Other remediation continues.