British Columbia’s chief mines inspector should have expanded powers to add new conditions to mine permits, and call for independent environmental engineering reports, according to recommendations in a new review of the province’s professional reliance system.

The report, released in June, recommended the government put professional requirements directly into legislation and suggests the province clearly define what a “qualified person” is, rather than leave it up to a mine manager.

The proposed changes to B.C.’s Mines Act are part of a sweeping review of the province’s oversight of natural resource projects, called “professional reliance,” undertaken by University of Victoria environmental law professor Mark Haddock. The professional reliance system delegates certain oversight and regulatory tasks to certified professionals like engineers, and has been in place in B.C. for about 15 years. The review was promised as a part of the coalition agreement between the B.C. NDP and Green parties following the last provincial election.

The report calls for the scaling back of professional reliance, and the introduction of a new body to regulate professional organizations in the province. The recommendations, if implemented, could constitute sweeping change to B.C.’s mining industry and put more oversight power back in the hands of the government.

The changes to the Mines Act would give significant new powers to the chief mines inspector. “There is some uncertainty about the chief inspector’s authority to impose additional conditions or changes in the existing conditions in a mine permit without an application from the permit holder. This should be resolved to ensure that the chief inspector has authority to respond to conditions as they arise,” Haddock wrote.

In recommending a clearer definition of a “qualified person,” Haddock wrote that the current definition relies on the mine manager’s opinion, and should instead be defined in the Act. “[Ministry of Energy, Mines and Petroleum Resources] staff have indicated this has been problematic in the past, particularly for smaller mines,” the report said.

 The report also recommended putting professional requirements into the Mines Act.

“Consider migrating some of the standard professional requirements into the Act itself, while reserving the authority to specify additional requirements in permits for mine-specific requirements. This could include new requirements for use of professionals in matters such as mine reclamation, and permit application requirements.”

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The review calls for the creation of an “Office of Professional Regulation and Oversight,” which would oversee five different professional organizations in the province related to the resource and agricultural sectors: agrologists, biologists, foresters, applied science technologists, and engineers and geoscientists.

One of the main goals of the proposed oversight office would be to standardize the rules governing the different professional associations. It would also investigate and enforce codes of conduct and other rules governing the organizations. The report also recommended the province give professional organizations the ability to enforce its code of ethics not just on individual professionals, but on firms themselves, particularly consultancies.

“If the recommendations are accepted, it will be important that this work be carried out in close collaboration with the professional associations,” Haddock wrote.

Danielle Bell, a spokesperson for the province’s Ministry of Environment and Climate Change Strategy, said the recommendations are still under review, and that since receiving the report, the ministry has begun consultations with stakeholders. She said responses from the consultations are expected to be completed by the end of this year.

“We want to make sure the actions flowing from this review will help to build confidence in the professional reliance model amongst the public, industry, and qualified professionals,” Bell said.

The report has so far been met with strong industry pushback. The president of the Mining Association of British Columbia, Bryan Cox, dismissed the report in a statement, saying it goes too far.

“MABC was hopeful the report would represent the substantive submissions received by important stakeholders like the mining industry and make recommendations focused on good governance and transparency,” Cox said in the statement. “Instead, the report strays beyond the terms of reference, proposing significant changes to the system without the necessary justification, investigation or reference to British Columbia’s best practices to support them.”

Engineers and Geoscientists British Columbia (EGBC) agreed with some of the recommendations. EGBC said in a statement several of the proposed additional tools for associations are in line with their recommendations. “These tools include the ability to regulate engineering and geoscience companies, adding new tools to improve flexibility and responsiveness of regulators, and the ability to ensure competency of engineers and geoscientists through continuing professional development.”

However, the association said the creation of a provincial oversight office would not be necessary.

“We are concerned that the one-size-fits-all model proposed in the report does not account for the varied size and complexity of regulators,” the statement said. “At this point, the potential for unintended consequences has not been assessed.”

Ugo Lapointe, the Canada Program Coordinator for MiningWatch Canada, said the focus on putting the public interest at the heart of professional association codes of ethics will go a long way toward removing conflicts of duty for professionals in B.C. “Their professional standards or opinions on different issues will often conflict with [their] company's interests and priorities,” he said. “It often boils down to money, and cost, and needing a permit.”

He said by giving professional associations the ability to regulate smaller firms like consultancies, it puts everyone under the same ethics umbrella, which would further reduce conflicts.

While the mining-specific sections of the review are fairly narrow, Lapointe said that doesn’t mean there will be a narrow effect on the industry. “The core recommendations would affect mining too,” he said. “By restructuring … how professionals in the mining sector work and would apply their standards.”

Andrew Gage, a lawyer in charge of the climate change division of West Coast Environmental Law, said in some industries the reliance model in effect outsources much of the oversight responsibility to professionals in the industry. In the mining sector, he said, there is a better balance between the needs of industry and the government.

“I think the report does a good job of recognizing the problems, both with the regulatory outsourcing and the more subtle [way that] professionals really have a responsibility to look not just at the interests of their employer, but the broader public interest.”

To Gage, the review offers an opportunity to rebalance the scales between industry and the government in a way that can increase the confidence in the public in the process.

“Public trust is something that’s important to the industry, social licence and the sense that the public is going to see approvals as valid and not merely as a result of a government that doesn’t actually have power to do anything because they’ve turned it all over to industry professionals,” he said. “From that point of view there’s an opportunity here that I hope people in the mining industry and others are going to recognize that there does need to be a rebalancing and a realignment of how government has been working.”