Mining industry at a crossroads

There was a time not long ago in BC when the main environmental pariah in the province was the forest industry, but that is no longer so. Over the last 15 years the forest industry changed how it worked and forged serious partnerships with First Nations. It saw it had to change and it did. The sub-surface industries are now at a similar crossroads: they have to change or close up shop.

For the mining and fossil fuel energy sectors it is not a good situation to have become the number one environmental enemy, but this is made worse with how the industries deal with the public, rural communities and First Nations. The industries could be doing a lot to improve their situation but they are acting like the BC forest industry did in the 1980s and early 90s. On top of this we have the recent Tsilhqot’in decision and the Mount Polley mine tailings pond breach.

The Tsilhqot’in decision indicates that a significant part of BC is likely to have aboriginal title and for companies to operate on that land they will need First Nations consent. That consent is much easier to achieve when there is a positive relationship. Overall the mining industry, especially mineral exploration juniors,  has not worked hard to build these sorts of relationships.

The New Prosperity gold mine project in the Chilcotin has had a tough time getting approvals to be built. Taseko Mines’s relationship with the Tsilhqot’in is at best awful and this was made no better when on June 26  the company issued a press release that denied the mine site had any aboriginal title issues.

From that press release:

The ruling confirms that Taseko’s New Prosperity Gold-Copper project is located in an area where aboriginal title does not exist. As such, New Prosperity is the only proposed mine in BC that people know for sure is not in an area of aboriginal title.

What they are ignoring is that the case did not address aboriginal title in the area of the proposed mine. I have little doubt that when the question is asked the mine site will fall under aboriginal title. Issuing a press release containing the above paragraph is clearly not going to improve the relationship. What has been missing is Taseko going to the Tsilhqot’in and seeking their cooperation and approval through a serious partnership.

Imperial Metals may have caused the mining industry’s the biggest headache imaginable, not only through allowing the dam breach, but also how they responded to it. In this social media age speed matters, and Imperial Metals did not address the situation quickly with the media or online. The company took more than a day to get anything on their Web site and what they did put up said very little. In more than four days since the breach, the company has offered only three short updates, one of which says the water quality is fine.

Some of what is missing is any sense that Imperial Metals is being open and transparent. The company does not seem to be making any data on the tailings pond available to the public in a proactive manner. As an example, it has not said how much was released in the breach. It has not explained what has been going on with the tailings pond and why the province had concerns. It feels like they are adopting a PR strategy in which the hope is that the problems will all blow over and the company will be fine if it keeps information to a minimum. This sort of approach reflects badly on the whole industry because it destroys public trust.

What is also missing is Imperial Metals taking full responsibility. The public wants a sense of contrition from the company as well as a recognition that this is a serious disaster. Imperial Metals President Bryan Kynoch could not have misread the situation more with his response that he would be willing to drink the water. It is not only a stupid comment but shows the company is still stuck in a mode of thinking that the public does not really matter. Imperial Metals has now hired a PR person to deal with the media, but that is not the problem for the company or the industry.

Dealing with a major breach of a tailings pond is not a PR exercise; it is a disaster that should never have happened. Imperial Metals has not yet come out and said, “We screwed up.” That is really a no-brainer since the company is responsible for the dam and the breach resulted from some human error. I have also not heard them commit to a complete restoration of the ecosystem. Their minimal response to the situation is a black mark against the whole industry. Every mine with a tailings pond is now an inevitable and impending disaster in the minds of much of the public.

The two largest industry associations for mining in BC — the Mining Association of BC and the Association for Mineral Exploration — both responded to the Tsilhqot’in decision and the Mount Polley mine disaster, but their responses fell short, lacking significant content. At best they were statements that the status quo is still generally the same. If the industry wants to build trust with the public and have any chance of getting First Nations support the MABC and the AME should both come out and say that  everything is far from fine and that the industry needs a radical change in mindset.

With the Tsilhqot’in decision, both associations could have said that the industry needs to change and seek First Nations approval for projects. The new reality in BC is that without First Nations approval very few mining projects have a chance of being developed.

With the Mount Polley disaster, both associations could have shown that as an industry they are horrified by what happened and could commit to ensuring that 100% of any possible costs will be met by the industry and not the public. It would also have been nice to have the associations call for whomever is ultimately responsible for the breach to be prosecuted.

Hopefully the mining industry will finally see that there needs to be a fundamental shift in how companies work with the public, rural communities and First Nations. The industry has to leave PR behind. They then, with some humility, need to seek out serious partnerships with First Nations and communities. The new reality in BC is that a claim staked without the support of communities and First Nations is effectively worthless.