Story by Emilee Gilpin
A catastrophic spill of toxic waste, including arsenic, lead, mercury, selenium and phosphorus, four years ago in British Columbia shows how Canada may be no safer than a stereotypical developing economy with a reputation for political corruption and instability, says a new research report published on Tuesday.
The 62-page study, co-published by research groups in Canada and Brazil, compared the infamous Mount Polley tailings pond spill in B.C. — considered to be the largest mining disaster in Canadian history — with the 2015 Mariana mine spill — a catastrophe that left 19 people dead and hundreds of people homeless in Brazil. The latter was considered to be the largest mining disaster in Latin American history.
While the report noted that most people would think that Canada is far ahead of developing countries such as Brazil, when it comes to fighting political corruption, the evidence from the research suggests otherwise.
“Canada is understood as a rich, ‘developed,’ politically stable nation in the Global North, while Brazil is located in the poorer ‘developing’ Global South, popularly understood to be endemically corrupt and politically unstable,” said the report — Tailings dam spills at the Mount Polley and Mariana: Chronicles of Disasters Foretold.
“Yet a closer look at the mining disasters at Mount Polley and Mariana immediately reveals remarkable similarities, not only in the contexts and circumstances leading up to the breaches but also in the corporate, governmental and civil society responses afterwards.”
In 2014, the dam holding toxic waste from the Mount Polley copper and gold mine in the Cariboo region of B.C., collapsed, spilling toxic waste into Hazeltine Creek and Quesnell Lake and destroying land, water systems and salmon habitat in the traditional territory of the Secwepemc, Xat’sull Sodar Creek First Nation and T’exelc Williams Lake Band.
One year later, the Fundão tailings dam collapsed at the Samarco mine in Mariana, Brazil, burying three communities, killing 19 people, and contaminating the 853-km-long Rio Doce (Sweet River), a river basin that was once home to 3.2 million people. The Krenak Nation, an Indigenous community of 400 people lost their land, crops, livestock, fishing livelihoods and water access.
The report concluded that both disasters were symbols of the unregulated power of transnational corporations — in this case, mining corporations that assume any assertion of rights over how land and resources are used.
In both jurisdictions, energy and mining corporations, among others, persuaded governments to streamline review and approval processes, reduce oversight and ease rules, the report said.
“The corporate owners of both mines — Imperial Metals, owner the Mount Polley Mining Corporation, and Vale and BHP Billiton, joint owners of Samarco Mining — enjoyed close relationships with major political parties and government officials,” said the report. “The mining industry in both jurisdictions pressured governments to adopt their agenda on licensing, environmental safety and third-party inspections. And the companies in question donated generously to political parties, thereby giving elected officials a financial interest — and, since electoral campaigns are expensive, a political interest — in promoting the mining sector and prioritizing the needs of industry.”
The report was co-published by the Corporate Mapping Project (a research and public engagement project based at the University of Victoria that investigates the power of the fossil fuel industry in Canada), the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, the Wilderness Committee, and Brazil-based PoEMAS (Grupo Política, Economia, Mineração, Ambiente e Sociedade).
Report author Judith Marshall worked for eight years in the Ministry of Education in post-independence Mozambique, completed a PhD at the University of Toronto with a thesis — and later book — on literacy, power and democracy and spent two decades in the Global Affairs department of the United Steelworkers. She is now an Associate of the Centre for Research on Latin America and the Caribbean (CERLAC) at York University.
In her time with the Steelworkers, Marshall organized many international worker exchanges and became very familiar with the mining industry in Brazil. After retirement, she continued to be active in the International Network of People Affected by Vale wearing a CERLAC hat. Marshall told National Observer that she had been in Brazil for a Vale network meeting in 2015, just three months before the Samarco disaster.
She returned for the commemorations of the Mariana tragedy in the years that followed.
Marshall was also familiar with the mining industry in Canada after 20 years with the Steelworkers union. She did workshops with the Teck mines in Kamloops and Trail in the early 1990s and helped to build connections with miners in Chile and Peru. But she was less familiar with the details of the Mount Polley mine, the events leading up to the spill, and its lasting impacts.
Following the Mount Polley disaster, she was contacted by members of the Idle No More movement who wanted to shed light on what they saw as a problematic relationship between mining corporations and the government. Although Marshall was involved in the “mining world,” she said she hadn’t read much about the Mount Polley event and was surprised to see how little attention it harnessed outside of B.C.
“I had to work hard to get up to speed, and when I did, I was gobsmacked by the similarities between the two situations,” she said in a phone interview.
In both cases, Marshall’s report finds, the mining corporations aggressively expanded their operations to take advantage of a boom in global commodity prices, but then dramatically cut spending on safety and oversight to maintain profits when the market prices plummeted.
She also noted that workers warned that disasters were looming ahead of time, but that their warnings were ignored.
“There weren’t emergency plans in case of a collapse of the dams in Canada nor in Brazil,” Marshall said. “In neither case was there preparedness for financial considerations for the damages caused and communities affected.”
The most interesting similarity between the two mining disasters, Marshall said, is the obvious power of the mining companies to “change the rules of the game.” In both cases, the report found, the companies were self-regulating without any sort of reliable independent regulatory system and their power was protected through persistent lobbying and political contributions.
Contrary to popular opinion, the fact of being in a so-called developed country or a so-called developing country, makes no difference, Marshall said. Mining is a global operation and has its own internal logic.
Interviewed days after the Mount Polley breach, president of Imperial Metals is widely quoted as saying, “If you asked me two weeks ago if this could have happened, I would have said it couldn’t.” Similarly, spokespeople from Samarco Mine (owned by two transnational mining giants: Vale, formerly a Brazilian state company, and BHP Billiton, an Anglo-Australian company) expressed shock and dismay days after the Mariana breach.
Samarco president Ricardo Vescovi’s first public response following the spill appeared in a Facebook video. At the time, he said the company was deeply sorry and “moved by what happened, and are in full action to stop the damage caused by the tragic accident,” Marshall’s report notes. Yet over the months that followed, neither the government nor Samarco communicated with the affected communities to provide information and support for evacuations, she wrote.
Taking matters into their own hands, affected communities blockaded the rail line passing through their territories carrying mineral ore and merchandise from Minas Gerais to the ocean port of Victoria. This act of civil disobedience harnessed more media and government attention, the report noted.