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VIEW: To prevent future Mt. Polleys, BC must restore its professional public service

Do you know what's going on in your own backyard? The B.C. government certainly doesn't.

In "An Engineer's Idea to Prevent Future Mount Polleys," published today on The Tyee, the notion of voluntary peer reviews is promoted as a means of preventing mining disasters similar to Mount Polley. More due diligence relating to approval of mining and other resource development projects is certainly needed, but the best approach is to ensure that government knows what is happening on Crown land.

The B.C. government has slashed professionals in the public service to the point where it doesn't have a full picture of what's happening. In a March 2014 report, the Professional Employees Association (PEA) demonstrated that the province has reduced its complement of scientific and technical professionals by 15 per cent since 2009.

Looking back to 2001, there are 25 per cent fewer professionals in the public service. In the report, the PEA warned that these reductions could threaten both public safety and the environment because of inadequate monitoring and inspections.

Unfortunately, the PEA's prediction was spot-on, and now one of the worst mining disasters in B.C.'s history has spilled 10 million cubic metres of water and mine tailings flow into Polley Lake and Quesnel Lake. This spill will likely result in long-term environmental degradation and significant negative impacts on local communities for generations.

Government policy over the last 13 years has been to dramatically reduce in-house government professionals, deregulate natural resource industries and to reduce the role of public service professional staff in monitoring, compliance and enforcement.

We believe that government policy increases the risks of disasters like Mt. Polley and may have significantly contributed to this event. Watchdog agencies, including the Forest Practices Board and the Auditor General, have already voiced concern over the lack of on the ground monitoring happening in natural resource ministries.

The peer review concept proposed relies on a process of voluntary reviews. This still doesn't solve the problem of government knowing what's happening on Crown land. The costs of voluntary reviews would average $300 an hour for panelists. This hourly rate would be the approximate equivalent of three professional engineers working directly for the province.

Hiring more professional staff in mining ministries with the expertise needed to ensure mining takes place safely, along with an appropriate level of professional development, would allow the province to ensure they have required staff expertise.

The PEA believes that the provincial government must know what's happening with public land. If the public does not trust that publicly owned resources, such as minerals and forests, are being appropriately stewarded and that the environment and public safety are protected, then resource development may grind to a halt.

Peer reviews can be a helpful tool in the natural resource management toolkit, but the government needs to take a stand on knowing what's happening with the public's natural resources. You can't rely on industry to solve all of the problems with natural resource development. A professional public service is a key step to understanding what's happening on the ground and preventing another Mount Polley disaster.

Scott McCannell is the executive director of the Professional Employees Association.

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