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The dangers of deregulation extend beyond mining disasters

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Photo: Tony Sprackett/flickr

The Mount Polley Mine disaster has raised important questions about the risks and costs of deregulation of the mining industry in B.C. I spoke about this issue recently on CBC Vancouver's Early Edition and CBC Kamloops' Daybreak (if you missed it, there's audio here, starts around 1:00:48).

As a citizen and as a public interest researcher at CCPA, I am very concerned that Canada's environmental protection regulations have been weakened both provincially and federally over the last 10 - 15 years and that budget cuts have meant fewer inspectors on the ground to monitor and enforce the regulations that remain.

Worse, this is not only an issue for resource stewardship. Inadequate regulation, oversight and enforcement are behind a number of other recent industrial accidents and incidents.

For example, the listeriosis outbreak from Maple Leaf Foods in 2008 that killed 22 people was a case of poor monitoring and enforcement of existing safety regulations, partially caused by staffing cuts to federal food inspection staff and increased reliance on the industry to self-monitor. The Lac-Mégantic disaster was a case of both inadequate regulation of the transport of dangerous goods and lack of enforcement. There is evidence that the company was allowed to continue operations despite known poor safety standards.

A number of CCPA reports have warned of the dangers of deregulation and the increased reliance on industry to self-police, including the aptly titled Disaster in the Making. Earlier last week, the National Office of the CCPA released a report authored by Bruce Campbell which details the regulatory failures at the root of the Lac-Mégantic disaster last year (Willful Blindness).

The very idea that industry can self-regulate or self-police is unrealistic. We can't expect businesses whose bottom line is their private profit to voluntarily put public safety or environmental protection before profit. And there is plenty of evidence that self-regulation does not work in practice.

Consider the global financial crisis in 2008 -- the root of which was deregulation of the finance sector in the U.S. Canada fared a bit better because we had stronger regulation of the banking sector. But even here, the real consequences of deregulation were felt acutely as thousands of Canadians lost their jobs and faced the prospect of poverty and economic insecurity.

We need somebody to stand up for the public interest and industry isn't it. This is why we need government.

Unfortunately, deep cuts in B.C.'s civil service documented in my recent CCPA report Reality Check on the Size of BC's Public Sector have undermined our government's ability to protect not just the environment, but also B.C.'s most vulnerable citizens. My research found:

Rounds of spending cuts and staffing reductions have starved B.C.'s public service to the point where key programs have indeed been scaled back or dismantled. The consequences of cutting public sector jobs include:

  • Reduced monitoring and protection of forests and water, allowing for more illegal logging and pollution;
  • Larger class sizes and overcrowding in public and post-secondary institutions, reducing the quality of education;
  • Less homecare and other services for seniors, leading to hardship for seniors and overcrowding in hospitals; and
  • Less protection for vulnerable children in care, increasing the likelihood of abuse and neglect, as documented by the BC Representative for Children and Youth.

In the wake of the Mount Polley Mine spill, it's time to reconsider the dangers of deregulation more broadly and rebuild government's capacity to effectively protect the public interest.

Photo: Tony Sprackett/flickr

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