Story by Emilee Gilpin
A catastrophic spill of toxic waste, including arsenic, lead, mercury, selenium and phosphorus, four years ago in British Columbia shows how Canada may be no safer than a stereotypical developing economy with a reputation for political corruption and instability, says a new research report published on Tuesday.
The 62-page study, co-published by research groups in Canada and Brazil, compared the infamous Mount Polley tailings pond spill in B.C. — considered to be the largest mining disaster in Canadian history — with the 2015 Mariana mine spill — a catastrophe that left 19 people dead and hundreds of people homeless in Brazil. The latter was considered to be the largest mining disaster in Latin American history.
While the report noted that most people would think that Canada is far ahead of developing countries such as Brazil, when it comes to fighting political corruption, the evidence from the research suggests otherwise.
“Canada is understood as a rich, ‘developed,’ politically stable nation in the Global North, while Brazil is located in the poorer ‘developing’ Global South, popularly understood to be endemically corrupt and politically unstable,” said the report — Tailings dam spills at the Mount Polley and Mariana: Chronicles of Disasters Foretold.
"Yet a closer look at the mining disasters at Mount Polley and Mariana immediately reveals remarkable similarities, not only in the contexts and circumstances leading up to the breaches but also in the corporate, governmental and civil society responses afterwards."
In 2014, the dam holding toxic waste from the Mount Polley copper and gold mine in the Cariboo region of B.C., collapsed, spilling toxic waste into Hazeltine Creek and Quesnell Lake and destroying land, water systems and salmon habitat in the traditional territory of the Secwepemc, Xat’sull Sodar Creek First Nation and T’exelc Williams Lake Band.
One year later, the Fundão tailings dam collapsed at the Samarco mine in Mariana, Brazil, burying three communities, killing 19 people, and contaminating the 853-km-long Rio Doce (Sweet River), a river basin that was once home to 3.2 million people. The Krenak Nation, an Indigenous community of 400 people lost their land, crops, livestock, fishing livelihoods and water access.
The report concluded that both disasters were symbols of the unregulated power of transnational corporations — in this case, mining corporations that assume any assertion of rights over how land and resources are used.
In both jurisdictions, energy and mining corporations, among others, persuaded governments to streamline review and approval processes, reduce oversight and ease rules, the report said.
“The corporate owners of both mines — Imperial Metals, owner the Mount Polley Mining Corporation, and Vale and BHP Billiton, joint owners of Samarco Mining — enjoyed close relationships with major political parties and government officials,” said the report. “The mining industry in both jurisdictions pressured governments to adopt their agenda on licensing, environmental safety and third-party inspections. And the companies in question donated generously to political parties, thereby giving elected officials a financial interest — and, since electoral campaigns are expensive, a political interest — in promoting the mining sector and prioritizing the needs of industry.”
The report was co-published by the Corporate Mapping Project (a research and public engagement project based at the University of Victoria that investigates the power of the fossil fuel industry in Canada), the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, the Wilderness Committee, and Brazil-based PoEMAS (Grupo Política, Economia, Mineração, Ambiente e Sociedade).
Report author Judith Marshall worked for eight years in the Ministry of Education in post-independence Mozambique, completed a PhD at the University of Toronto with a thesis — and later book — on literacy, power and democracy and spent two decades in the Global Affairs department of the United Steelworkers. She is now an Associate of the Centre for Research on Latin America and the Caribbean (CERLAC) at York University.
In her time with the Steelworkers, Marshall organized many international worker exchanges and became very familiar with the mining industry in Brazil. After retirement, she continued to be active in the International Network of People Affected by Vale wearing a CERLAC hat. Marshall told National Observer that she had been in Brazil for a Vale network meeting in 2015, just three months before the Samarco disaster.
She returned for the commemorations of the Mariana tragedy in the years that followed.
Marshall was also familiar with the mining industry in Canada after 20 years with the Steelworkers union. She did workshops with the Teck mines in Kamloops and Trail in the early 1990s and helped to build connections with miners in Chile and Peru. But she was less familiar with the details of the Mount Polley mine, the events leading up to the spill, and its lasting impacts.
Following the Mount Polley disaster, she was contacted by members of the Idle No More movement who wanted to shed light on what they saw as a problematic relationship between mining corporations and the government. Although Marshall was involved in the "mining world," she said she hadn't read much about the Mount Polley event and was surprised to see how little attention it harnessed outside of B.C.
"I had to work hard to get up to speed, and when I did, I was gobsmacked by the similarities between the two situations," she said in a phone interview.
In both cases, Marshall's report finds, the mining corporations aggressively expanded their operations to take advantage of a boom in global commodity prices, but then dramatically cut spending on safety and oversight to maintain profits when the market prices plummeted.
She also noted that workers warned that disasters were looming ahead of time, but that their warnings were ignored.
"There weren't emergency plans in case of a collapse of the dams in Canada nor in Brazil," Marshall said. "In neither case was there preparedness for financial considerations for the damages caused and communities affected.”
The most interesting similarity between the two mining disasters, Marshall said, is the obvious power of the mining companies to "change the rules of the game." In both cases, the report found, the companies were self-regulating without any sort of reliable independent regulatory system and their power was protected through persistent lobbying and political contributions.
Contrary to popular opinion, the fact of being in a so-called developed country or a so-called developing country, makes no difference, Marshall said. Mining is a global operation and has its own internal logic.
Interviewed days after the Mount Polley breach, president of Imperial Metals is widely quoted as saying, "If you asked me two weeks ago if this could have happened, I would have said it couldn't." Similarly, spokespeople from Samarco Mine (owned by two transnational mining giants: Vale, formerly a Brazilian state company, and BHP Billiton, an Anglo-Australian company) expressed shock and dismay days after the Mariana breach.
Samarco president Ricardo Vescovi's first public response following the spill appeared in a Facebook video. At the time, he said the company was deeply sorry and "moved by what happened, and are in full action to stop the damage caused by the tragic accident," Marshall's report notes. Yet over the months that followed, neither the government nor Samarco communicated with the affected communities to provide information and support for evacuations, she wrote.
Taking matters into their own hands, affected communities blockaded the rail line passing through their territories carrying mineral ore and merchandise from Minas Gerais to the ocean port of Victoria. This act of civil disobedience harnessed more media and government attention, the report noted.
Quoting documents obtained through ongoing court procedures, the report explained how the major companies involved had ignored warning signs that they were headed for disasters.
“Samarco had commissioned a study to look at the worst possible scenarios and they had a document in hand stating that they could anticipate around 20 people who could die in the result of a spill,” Marshall said on the phone. “They had estimates of deaths, of the destruction of the river basin, and the dollar value of expected damages. And yet they took no action to make it safe.”
At the very least, the companies could have had an alarm system that would warn neighbouring communities about the spill, she said. Instead, people were riding bikes and driving motorcycles as quickly as possible to inform each other of the tsunami-like wave of toxic muck that eventually buried three whole communities.
In the case of the Mount Polley disaster, the report highlighted a 2010 inspection of the mine that identified a crack in the wall perimeter, broken instruments and inadequate tailings beaches. A 2011 inspection revealed glaring omissions in the corporation’s assessment of the impact of the waste water and an inadequate emergency plan.
But despite all the warnings, the report noted, no action was taken.
When asked why the companies would ignore warnings that, if heeded, could have saved them millions of dollars and their reputations, Marshall said, in the end, they were motivated by making making short-term profits instead of ensuring safety.
“These two cases are symptomatic of the fact, speaking more broadly, that the roles of government and the roles of corporations have been reversed in the current global order,” Marshall said.
One chapter of the report, titled ‘Regulatory capture and the mining industry,’ investigates how governments have catered to private investors, resulting in mining interests often superseding the public interest.
Marshall examined cuts to public service in the years leading up the the mining spills. She quoted an investigation by The Tyee that showed how mine inspections in B.C. had been reduced by nearly half since 2001, the year the B.C. Liberal government took power.
She also linked the issue to media reports, including in the New York Times article, that suggested B.C. had become the “Wild West” of Canadian political cash, allowing the wealthy to buy access to power.
She found similar practices in Brazil.
“The Vale group financed electoral campaigns a both the federal and state levels,” the report notes. “Electoral records from the 2015 elections show that Dilma Rousseff (former President of Brazil) received direct contributions of C$33.6 million from Vale while state governor Fernando Pimentel received C$8.7 million.”
All in all, she said there is troubling evidence that some companies are trying to mislead people about what is in their best interests, leaving the population with a mistaken belief that any regulation is too much.
“Mining companies have used their own think-tanks, trade agreements and a variety of mechanisms to put in place what we have at the moment — a world with their entitlement to mine anywhere they choose,” she stressed on the phone.
“We don’t understand how much we’re taught to think in particular ways… We have socially learned ways of seeing the world and changing the narrative is a contested space.”
Marshall believes that the report also demonstrates why it’s important to have independent reviews and assessments of what is actually happening.
Without any changes, the report warns that more disasters are on the horizon.
A 2015 report from an independent panel of experts assigned by the government to investigate the Mount Polley disaster concluded that “if the inventory of active tailings dams in the province remains unchanged, and performance in the future reflects that in the past, then on average there will be two failures every 10 years and six every 30.”
Despite the findings, Marshall noted that only seven months after the Mount Polley disaster, Imperial Metals applied for a permit, to restart the mine. Similarly, she wrote, an application for the reopening of the Samarco mine was filed before assessments of damage were complete.
Since the Mount Polley disaster, provincial leadership has turned over from the former premier Christy Clark’s Liberals to Premier John Horgan’s New Democrats. The B.C. government has since banned corporate and union political donations and publicly committed to the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission Calls to Action (TRC). The government has also undertaken a review of who is hired to review proposed mining projects.
But despite the changes, Marshall said the government has remained silent on addressing a glaring conflict of interest — that the same governing body responsible for promoting mining is also responsible for regulating it.
The Ministry of Energy and Mines did not immediately respond to requests for comment about the new research.
Four years after the Mount Polley spill, the report notes governments have failed to prosecute or fine anyone responsible for the disaster. What’s more, B.C. is Imperial Metals is allowing Imperial Metals to drain toxic waste into Quesnell Lake, the very lake they polluted at the time of the spill.
There is also an ongoing federal fisheries investigation underway in Canada.
In Brazil, different lawsuits are currently making their way through courts, but Marshall said the state of mining continues to worsen as the companies responsible deny responsibility for the liabilities around death and property damages, and have set up third-party organizations to adjust the focus.
“Here in Canada, to hear about a mining disaster in Brazil doesn’t surprise some people, because there are a lot of assumptions made about Brazil as a country in the South, where there’s a lot of corruption,” Marshall said, when asked to reflect on the most striking part of her research. “We think Canadian mining companies abroad do bad things, but that when they operate at home, all is well. Yet, as I unpacked things, it was so similar — it was all about the power mining companies had over government.”
Marshall will be joined by the coordinator of PoEMAS — a research group from Brazil in Kamloops for the Western Mining Action Conference in September to encourage more public discussion about the report's findings. They will participate in a number of public meetings in Kamloops, Vancouver and Victoria.
She said she hopes this report will help people understand the power of transnational corporations at this very unique moment in history.