Feds expected to be flooded with mining proposals after gutting law: internal doc

Well, this is unfortunate timing for the Harper government.

Under the cover of an omnibus budget bill in 2012, the Conservatives stripped 99% of lakes, rivers and streams of protection under the Navigable Waters Protection Act.

The gutting of the act, originally meant to strike a balance between the rights of navigation and environmental protection, just came into force in April. The new law significantly reduces the scope over Canada's waters and facilitates development -- including mining projects.

Fast-forward a few months to today, and British Columbia is living through an environmental disaster after a breach of a tailings pond at a copper and gold mine in the Cariboo region. The breach on Monday resulted in 10 billion litres of waste water flooding into nearby lakes, creeks and salmon rivers. The contaminated sludge could fill 2,000 Olympic-sized swimming pools, and a drinking water ban remains in effect along with a local state of emergency.

According to an internal briefing to an associate deputy minister at Transport Canada written just before the Navigation Protection Act (NPA) came into effect -- and newly released to PressProgress under access to information law -- the federal government fully expected to be flooded with applications for new mine proposals. It also anticipated a much more speedy process for approvals.

"TC forecasts that up to 30 Order in Council exemptions (a process requiring up to 11 months following a positive environmental assessment decision) could be required under the current approach, if all the identified mining proposals proceed. The new approach is anticipated to reduce the number of Order in Council exemptions, thereby allowing for more efficient use of existing resources, within both the industry and the department," the briefing note says.

(Incidentally, internal government records previously released to Greenpeace Canada show that the idea to overhaul the act, which now protects fewer than 2% of Canada's waterways, came, in part, from industry.)

The government also won't be surprised if it's hauled before the courts, the briefing note states. "The new NPA does not define navigability. A determination of navigability by TC for a given project remains an opinion that may ultimately be challenged by the Courts as a matter of statutory interpretation."

In the meantime, there's a massive cleanup job to be done in B.C., where environmental advocates say the provincial government's decision to cut inspection staff and allow industry to self-regulate may be to blame for the Imperial Metals' Mount Polley tailings pond disaster.

And here's the Transport Canada briefing note:

The gutting of the Navigable Waters Protection Act

Photo: Cariboo Regional District (screenshot).