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NDP questions personnel use in B.C. mine-spill investigation

A aerial view shows the damage caused by a tailings pond breach on Lake Polley, B.C. Tuesday, August, 5, 2014. The minister responsible for British Columbia's mines says residents living along waterways affected by a mining-waste spill could catch a lucky break because the waste may not be poisonous.

JONATHAN HAYWARD/THE CANADIAN PRESS

The B.C. Liberal government's decision to have conservation officers investigate the Mount Polley mine spill makes little sense, the opposition NDP said.

The spill occurred on Aug. 4, when Mount Polley's tailings pond breached and millions of cubic metres of waste poured into B.C. waterways. The flow out of the breach has not yet completely stopped.

The cause has not been determined.

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The investigation is being led by the Conservation Officer Service, a government agency best known for its work combatting wildlife poaching.

Carole James, an MLA with the New Democratic Party, questioned the move in an interview on Monday.

"Conservation officers play a critical role in our province. They do a fantastic job of environmental stewardship, but it's not their job to go in and investigate a mine," she said.

Ms. James said conservation officers have little or no experience when it comes to a mine's geotechnical complexities. She said it would make far more sense to have an independent investigation conducted by outside experts.

Ms. James, who was elected to the legislature in 2005 and previously served as party leader, said she could not immediately recall an investigation of such magnitude being carried out by the Conservation Officer Service.

The province would not make anyone with the service available for an interview on Monday. The Conservation Officer Service falls under the Ministry of Environment's purview. In an e-mail, a ministry spokesman said the service is the primary natural resource law enforcement agency in B.C. and enforces more than 30 pieces of provincial and federal legislation, including the Environmental Management Act and the Fisheries Act.

"They are the most appropriate [choice to lead the investigation] because major investigations unit officers – trained in specialized investigative techniques – focus on cases that are complex, involve corporations, are international or are multi-jurisdictional in scope," the spokesman wrote.

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Six of the service's investigators are working on the case and can recommend charges to the Crown.

When asked if this would be the largest investigation in the Conservation Officer Service's history, the spokesman wrote: "It's difficult to characterize an investigation in comparison to others while the investigation is underway. That being said, this investigation is significant in nature because of the geographic magnitude, public interest, and multi-agency authorities and involvement of what is alleged to have occurred."

He did not provide a specific answer when asked to list some of the office's most notable cases, saying there had been "hundreds" of major files.

Of the eight news releases mentioning the Conservation Officer Service that could be found on the B.C. government website in the year leading up to the spill, seven involved wildlife, including investigations into elk and eagle poaching. The eighth news release recognized 10 conservation officers for "going above and beyond to protect British Columbia's residents and natural resources."

When asked if the Mount Polley investigation would be better served by having another force with more experience – such as the RCMP – lead the way, the spokesman said the Conservation Officer Service's members are highly trained in complex investigations and know how to gather evidence that can secure criminal prosecution.

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