BRITISH COLUMBIA

Mount Polley Report Finds No Significant Risks Before Disaster

07/02/2015 01:55 EDT | Updated 07/02/2016 05:59 EDT
VICTORIA - The British Columbia government needs to "open the gates" on information that is in the public interest, says a new report into last summer's Mount Polley mine disaster.

The report by Information and Privacy Commissioner Elizabeth Denham said that while the government didn't violate its legal obligations to report on conditions at the central B.C. mine before the August 2014 tailings-pond breach, it now needs to release more information because of her interpretation of the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act.

She said her office previously interpreted Section 25(1)(b) of the act to permit only the release of information considered to be urgent, but it will now interpret the section to permit the release of information that a reasonable observer would consider in the public's interest.

"In the past the duties or obligations to disclose information that's clearly in the public interest was interpreted very narrowly by my predecessors. I think wrongly," Denham said in a Thursday interview.

"I've re-interpreted that so that more information will make its way to the public domain."

She said people's right to know should take precedence when it comes to reports from public bodies, including the government.

"The public interest is not all about mining and infrastructure and safety of our waters and safety of our food and animal disease outbreaks," said Denham. "It's also about financial accountability and public administration and if it's clearly in the public interest to know information there's an obligation to disclose it."

She said the government must also make public information that involves personal privacy, third-party business interest and cabinet confidence.

"They need to open the gates a bit more than they have in the past," said Denham.

Technology, Innovation and Citizens' Services Minister Amrik Virk said in a statement the government accepts Denham's findings on privacy laws and the release of information.

Opposition New Democrat citizens' services critic Doug Routley said privacy advocates and his party have been demanding the government modernize its definition of public information for more than a decade.

Denham's report said she reviewed records dated between January 2009 and August 2014 and did not find anything indicating major risks at the mine.

She said she found two incidents involving a tension crack and water rising above permitted tailings-pond levels but they were not considered significant risks.

The breach last August caused 24-million cubic metres of silt and water to gush into nearby lakes and rivers.

One of the report's three recommendations called for the release of more public information beyond issues of urgency.

Last January, an independent government-ordered report concluded the breach was caused by poor dam design, which didn’t account for drainage and erosion failures associated with glacial till beneath the pond.

Mines Minister Bill Bennett said a decision on reopening the Mount Polley mine is expected this month.

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