Odd Thoughts: Environmental stewards actually administrators

Albertans have offered an interesting perspective on the Mount Polley Mine dam breach. Rather than joining the majority of British Columbians in outrage over the potential environmental disaster that the uncontrolled spill of about 15 million of cubic metres of mine waste represented, they’re outraged that we aren’t keen to allow Enbridge to place our pristine wilderness in a similarly precarious position.

Instead of demanding that Imperial Metals Corp. be brought up to the same strict environmental scrutiny that British Columbians are demanding of Enbridge’s Northern Gateway oil pipeline disaster-in-waiting, pundits on the other side of the Rockies seem to prefer the “what’s good for the goose” approach, demanding that B.C.’s environment ministry bureaucrats look the other way, as they appear to have done at Mount Polley.

One clever lad from Alberta asked specifically, “Why is an Alberta-based oil-and-gas company subjected to such intense scrutiny while a B.C.-based mining company gets a relatively light pass?”

He follows that up with a righteous demand: “The citizens of B.C. are entitled to a full explanation.” Indeed, we are.

Update after update was spewed out from the B.C. Minister of Environment, starting practically from the moment the dam broke, spilling about 10 million cubic metres of water and 4.5 million cubic metres of mine tailings into the natural watershed.

To put the amount of crud involved into perspective for the metric-challenged, one cubic metre converts to about 264 US gallons – so we’re talking about something close to four billion gallons of potentially dangerous material.

The ministry’s missives were filled with sunshine, from the outset, loaded with words of encouragement and wishful thinking – but seriously short on facts.

While it now appears that we may be relatively lucky, and the spill may not be as devastatingly toxic as could have been (no thanks to Imperial or the B.C. government), the ministry’s reaction demonstrated an important distinction between its perceived role and what it actually does.

We are subtly led to believe that Mary Polak’s ministry is a steward of the environment, but in fact, it is a body whose chief function is to administer the environment, renting it out to various business interests, and acting as a liaison between business and the environment’s owners (B.C.’s citizenry).

B.C.’s environment ministry sees the environment as a commodity, an asset to be exploited for business purposes – and we get to play with whatever is left over.

What the Albertans don’t understand, when they bemoan Enbridge’s treatment at the hands of the nasty B.C. government, is the political climate that was current at the time that decisions had to be made.

It wasn’t about B.C. companies vs. Alberta (or anyone else’s) companies; it was about what the B.C. government could (or couldn’t) get away with.

Premier Christy Clark’s contentious Five Conditions aimed at mitigating Enbridge’s potentially devastating environmental impact (contentious outside of B.C., that is) would never have happened if an election wasn’t looming at the same time that B.C. citizens got seriously concerned about their environment.

Big decisions like Enbridge are usually timed to occur right after, instead of just before, an election – to give us time to forget.

Every once in a while, the B.C. government finds it prudent to listen to us.

Albertans also ignore the fact that, unlike Imperial, Enbridge had already earned a reputation for lack of environmental trustworthiness in Kalamazoo, Michigan.

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