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Unions, First Nations seek ‘whistleblower’ protection during Mount Polley dam collapse probes

By Gordon Hoekstra - Vancouver Sun, November 20, 2014

Disclaimer: The views expressed here are not the official position of the IWW (or even the IWW’s EUC) and do not necessarily represent the views of anyone but the author’s.

Unions representing government inspectors and engineers and Mount Polley mine workers, supported by First Nations, called on the B.C. government Wednesday to provide “whistleblower” protection to workers who provide information to an expert panel appointed by the government.

The three-member expert engineering panel recently made an unusual call for public submission on the cause of Imperial Metals’ Mount Polley gold and copper mine tailings dam collapse.

The collapse on Aug. 4 at the mine in the Central Interior released millions of cubic metres of water and tailings containing potentially toxic metals. The spill, among the largest in the world in the past 50 years, sparked widespread concerns about the long-term effects on the Quesnel Lake watershed and has put intense scrutiny on tailings dam safety in British Columbia.

“Unless your government provides immediate protection to employees to speak freely about the disaster, there is a real risk that the panel will not obtain all the evidence it needs to do its job properly,” the parties said in a letter to Premier Christy Clark dated Wednesday.

The letter was signed by representatives of the B.C. Government Employees Union, Professional Employees Association, United Steelworkers, Williams Lake Indian Band, the Xatsull First Nation (Soda Creek Indian Band) and the University of Victoria Environmental Law Centre.

UVic law centre legal director Calvin Sandborn said that workers who fear reprisal in their workplace might not come forward.

The premier’s office referred questions to the mines ministry.

In an interview, B.C. Energy and Mines Minister Bill Bennett responded that he does not believe legislative change is needed for people to be able to freely provide information on the “disaster” without fear of reprisal.

He noted that public service workers are already provided that protection if they go through appropriate channels. In the Mount Polley case, the appropriate channels include the expert panel, the chief mines inspector or the B.C. Conservation Service, Bennett said.

All three bodies are conducting investigations.

And Bennett provided a personal assurance that public service employees who provide information have “nothing to fear” from the government.

Bennett added that mine employees would be able to provide information in confidence to any of the three investigations.

“The presumption that I think is implicit in the suggestion that we need this whistleblower protection for the Mount Polley situation is that somehow or another we are trying to hide something. We are not trying to hide anything,” said Bennett. “I am serious about getting to the bottom of what happened.”

The letter to the premier said rectifying the problem is as simple as providing legal immunity for both civil servants and mine employees who come forward with information.

Those with information need protection from managerial discipline or dismissal, added the letter.

Sandborn pointed to mine worker Larry Chambers, who said he was fired for bringing up safety issues.

And he noted that Mount Polley mine foreman Gerald MacBurney, who came forward with information that Imperial Metals was not safely increasing the size of the dam as instructed by its engineers AMEC, did so only because he did not fear reprisal as he had already quit after winning a significant amount of money playing online slots.

AMEC has declined to comment on the issue, and Imperial Metals CEO Brian Kynoch has been adamant the company followed the advice of its engineers in building the dam and raising its height.

While the B.C. government has resisted whistleblower legislation, Ontario, New Brunswick and Yukon have all implemented some form of whistleblower protection.

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