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B.C. announces independent investigation panel for tailings pond breach

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VANCOUVER - The British Columbia government has ordered every mining operation in the province to conduct safety inspections following a massive tailings pond breach at a gold and copper mine.

Mines Minister Bill Bennett said Monday those audits have to be completed by Dec. 1 and must be reviewed by outside engineering firms. There are currently 98 tailings ponds at 60 metal and coal mines in B.C.

He also appointed a three-member panel to conduct an independent investigation of the dam failure two weeks ago at Mount Polley mine in the central Interior region.

"Everything is on the table — government regulations, government policies, how we do business is on the table," Bennett said.

"This independent review will get at what happened and whether our processes were adequate, and whether the mine's processes were adequate ... all those kinds of things will be looked at in this case."

Calling the incident a disaster, the minister said the investigation will be paid for by Imperial Metals (TSX:III), owner of Mount Polley mine, where 10 million cubic metres of waste water and 4.5 million cubic metres of silt poured into a network of salmon-bearing lakes and rivers near Likely, 600 kilometres northeast of Vancouver.

Bennett said the panel of geotechnical engineers and mining experts will investigate the cause of the failure, as well as provincial standards, the design and maintenance of the dam, and inspection regimes. The panel will have the authority to compel testimony and evidence, and will make recommendations by the end of January 2015.

This investigation is in addition to a probe already under way by the province's chief inspector of mines and Conservation Officer Service.

So far, there are no leading theories for the collapse, Bennett said.

"This shocked everyone, I think, especially the engineers who were responsible for the dam," he said. "It's not like these tailings dams are way up in the middle of nowhere and nobody pays any attention to them. They're monitored 24 hours a day, seven days a week."

Bennett said he will take full responsibility if the panel finds his ministry was at fault, without elaborating.

The province announced an agreement with two area First Nations that will see the Williams Lake and Soda Creek Indian bands each receive $200,000 to cover costs associated with the spill, such as hiring experts for their own water tests and hosting community meetings.

The bands will also receive the independent investigation report prior to its public release.

"We don't have the technical experience that's required to do the assessments out there, so we do have to place our confidence somewhere," said Williams Lake Chief Ann Louie.

"The government is being held accountable for this, so I'm sure that the people that have been selected are the best in the world as they have indicated. If not, and there are issues with it, the time will come when that has to be dealt with."

The Environment Ministry also suspended on Monday an environmental assessment of a new gold and copper mine near Smithers, pending the outcome of the independent investigation.

Ministry spokesman David Karn said findings from the investigation may have ramifications for the Morrison Mine, which was rejected by the province in 2012. That decision was overturned last year by a B.C. Supreme Court, who ordered the province to reconsider the project.

The first toxicity test results from the slurry from the Mount Polley mine were released on the weekend, showing the waste posed no risk to humans but could harm aquatic life. Testing continues.

The inquiry was welcomed by the Association of Professional Engineers and Geoscientists of BC, the B.C. Green Party and the Opposition New Democrats.

But appointing a panel does not equate full accountability, said Norm MacDonald, the provincial NDP mining critic.

"The minister must wait to hear what the panel says before finding his ministry free from blame, and he must also immediately release all permits, requests, reports, and inspection documents related to Mount Polley, and pledge to release all documents uncovered by the investigation, along with the report, as soon as they are available," MacDonald said in a statement.

Aaron Hill with Watershed Watch Salmon Society said he's not confident government will fully implement panel recommendations. A judicial inquiry would be better, he said.

"There were obviously regulatory problems that led to this and we need the strongest possible public inquiry to understand what those problems were and how to prevent them in the future," Hill said.

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