The Breach at Mount Polley Represents a Failure of Governance

The Imperial Metals Corporation’s Board of Directors claims “ultimate responsibility” for the company and its business operations, but we have yet to learn exactly how the Board will exercise responsibility after the Mount Polley disaster. It’s not even clear the Board is capable of responding to the spill with anything but the public displays of emotion and concern we’ve already seen, weak assurances that the disaster has been “stabilized” and vague promises to do better next time. None of that amounts to taking responsibility.

Deregulation, lax regulation and staffing cutbacks on the government side are being blamed for the breach of the tailings pond. There are charges of collusion: “The government isn’t inspecting the mines, and the mining companies know it,” says consultant and advocate Glenda Ferris. But the breach at Mount Polley also represents a failure of internal or corporate governance at Imperial Metals: the board does not appear qualified to deal with the risks the mining company’s operations actually entail.

The Mount Polley breach has shown just how big those risks are, and how extensive are the responsibilities they carry. Imperial’s operations have created an environmental catastrophe (in the words of Phil Owens, Professor at University of Northern British Columbia). The last assessment I saw reported that Imperial Metals has released over 10 million cubic meters of water and 4.5 million cubic meters of toxic waste into surrounding rivers and waterways. The sudden rush of toxic waters was so powerful it took down trees in its wake.

There are important human rights considerations here as well, now that Imperial has compromised access to clean water throughout the region for who knows how long. Reassurances from Imperial Metals president Brian Kynoch that the water “in our tailings” is “very close to drinking water quality” are an insult to the intelligence, and make a mockery of serious human rights claims.

It’s not a question whether the mining company is a “bad actor,” or whether it’s “unfair” to portray them that way, as British Columbia energy minister Bill Bennett complained earlier today. It‘s a question of competence: who’s seated at the boardroom table before anything like this happens, and whether they are able to meet the serious responsibilities that go along with running a mining operation.

No one on the Imperials Metal board has environmental or human rights credentials. The company’s sulfide mining operations — and those of any mining company — require people with both. They should have a boardroom seat as well as a real say in how business gets done and how to mitigate mining’s risks. Until then, talking about “ultimate responsibility” is just guff.


4 thoughts on “The Breach at Mount Polley Represents a Failure of Governance

  1. Cindy Kilpatrick

    Well said but I do believe the government department should be held accountable as well. Having issued 5 warning with no consequences, it has undermined the system of checks and balances that we are expected to trust. The assurances of protective regulations fall flat again when we are reminded that only money talks.


    1. lvgaldieri Post author

      I am not trying to suggest that the government should be let off the hook. But I think the failure of corporate governance here is a serious issue, and since this isn’t just an isolated case, it’s one that should concern both investors and the communities where mining companies do business.


      1. Cindy Kilpatrick

        Indeed. I can only imagine what a board room must be like when a decision must be made to cut profits to ensure future environmental safety. In this case any hypothetical discussion would have come to the wrong conclusion since this company is likely doomed. Or am I naive?


  2. Steve Timmer

    Newspaper report from the time of the dam failure report the vague recollections of regulators about concessions made to Imperial before it failed, both in dam maintenance and in amount of surety for accidents required. It was a time of “economic hardship,” after all, and Imperial needed a break.

    It’s the way of the mining industry: work tirelessly to get the regulation of your mine reduced.



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