Sarah Alloisio

On the path of Responsible Mining
PEA member Sarah Alloisio shares her experience in the Mine Audits Unit

By Jessica Natale Woollard

The disruption caused by climate change is undoubtedly the greatest challenge we are currently facing. In a world where energy demand continues to increase and we need to move away from fossil fuels to reduce CO2 emissions, the transition to carbon-neutral, renewable forms of energy supply is a priority. Renewable technologies rely on the availability of metals that are found in rocks deep within the earth. That’s where mining becomes a key aspect of the green energy revolution, as it is through mining that these metals can be made available to build solar panels, wind turbines, batteries, electric cars and electricity grids.

Canadian companies have a large presence in the global mining industry, with operations in more than a hundred countries and a combined market capitalization of $520 billion.[1] Nearly half of the publicly listed mineral exploration companies in the world are Canadian.

Mining operations have undeniable adverse effects on the environment: they cause disturbance on the land and wildlife habitats, and generate tailings and waste rock that, if not properly managed, can contaminate streams, wetlands and aquifers. Mining activities are also associated with various health risks and safety hazards. The Canadian Critical Minerals Strategy released in 2022 was designed to advance the standards of practice  for health, safety and environmental protection in the mining of critical minerals needed for a low-carbon, electrified future.

In alignment with the federal government, British Columbia is also taking strides to advance sustainability in the mining industry. In 2019 the Ministry of Energy, Mines and Low Carbon Innovation (EMLI) established an internal Mine Audits Unit to support the continuous improvement of mining oversight in the province. The Mine Audits team conducts audits to identify areas for improvement in the mining regulatory framework, with the goal to support the global competitiveness of mines in BC while ensuring high standards of health, safety and environmental protection. The audit reports and the Ministry’s response to the audit recommendations are publicly available on the EMLI website.

In fall 2022, Sarah Alloisio, a member of the PEA GLP Chapter, joined the Mine Audits Unit, bringing with her technical and scientific knowledge gained from over 20 years of experience working in the mining sector.

Originally from Milan, Italy, Sarah earned a PhD in hydrogeology from the University of Birmingham in the United Kingdom. She and her husband, who is also a hydrogeologist and whom she met while working with a mining water consulting company in England, spent eight years working on mining projects in North and South America before transferring to Vancouver in 2008 to work with Schlumberger, a global service provider to the oil, gas and mining industry.

A decade later, Sarah left the world of consulting and joined the public sector, accepting a position as a hydrogeologist with BC Ministry of Environment and Climate Change Strategy (ENV). Based at the Ministry’s Surrey office, her job involved conducting  technical reviews of the hydrogeology aspects of Environmental Management Act and Mines Act permit applications for large mining projects.

After three years, Sarah moved to a Senior Project Lead position in the Major Mines Office of the Ministry of Energy, Mines and Low Carbon Innovation (EMLI). In this role, she led multi-Ministry (i.e., involving EMLI, ENV and the Ministry of Forests) permitting processes for large mining operations and had the opportunity to work closely with federal agencies and First Nation governments.

“Being part of the journey towards reconciliation by contributing to the development of meaningful relationship between the Major Mines Office and First Nation governments  has been one of the most rewarding parts of the job”, Sarah says, explaining that EMLI is also working hard to ensure mining companies engage closely with First Nations from the early stages of mining exploration.

Now based in the Mine Audits Unit, Sarah is working to help improve the mining regulatory framework, to ensure the health and safety of mine workers and reduce the adverse effects of mining on the environment. It’s an ideal role for Sarah, whose love for natural environments was cultivated through childhood hikes in the Italian Alps.

An avid outdoorsperson, she enjoys hiking, canoeing and backcountry camping with her husband and daughter. Her love of the outdoors means she’s committed to protecting it.

“Our natural environment is not only an economic resource, but also a source of enjoyment, it’s part of our heritage and plays a big role in our quality of life” Sarah says. “We need to preserve the natural environment of British Columbia not just for British Columbians but for everybody worldwide, and not only for our current benefit but for that of future generations, too.”

To date, the Mine Audits team has completed two audits. The first audit, which was completed in 2021, examined recent revisions of the regulation pertaining to mine tailings storage facilities. The second audit investigated existing regulatory requirements related to the protection of workers operating mobile equipment near water and was completed in 2022.

Sarah is leading one of the four audits that are currently in progress, which examines how the regulatory framework around financial bonding for mining exploration programs may be improved, to ensure that mining exploration companies address the environmental impacts caused by their activities once the programs end. Another audit Sarah is working on focuses on the regulation around the closure and land reclamation of mines once they stop operating.

British Columbia is home to a large mining industry comprising several major mines that extract gold, silver, copper, critical metals and coal mines that extract the coke coal used in the production of steel, such as those located in the Elk Valley in Southeast BC.

Mining is a major source of revenue for the province and is rapidly growing. In 2022, the industry’s contribution to the BC economy grew to $18 billion from $12.6 billion the previous year, an increase of 40 per cent.[2] Overseeing the industry as it evolves and expands comes with challenges for the BC government, requiring an approach that must look to the future while also addressing the legacy of historic mines that have not been properly reclaimed.

Sarah explains that the Mine Audits Unit and the role of the Chief Auditor were created in response to the BC Auditor General’s 2016 report on Compliance and Enforcement of the mining sector, which highlighted the shortcomings of the then Ministry of Energy and Mines and the Ministry of Environment in their ability to minimize the environmental risks of mining to the province. During the course of this audit the province experienced its worst environmental accident in the history of mining in BC: in 2014, the tailings dam of the Mount Polley copper mine, near Williams Lake, breached. The accident resulted in the release of 23 million cubic metres of mine waste into Quesnel Lake, Hazeltine Creek and other area waterways. An investigation into the accident found the province to be partially responsible, as it did not exercise sufficient regulatory oversight of the mine.

Events like the Mount Polley dam breach have affected the public confidence in the government’s ability to manage our natural resources. According to Sarah and others involved in mining regulation, a part of the problem lies with the current professional reliance model used in the Natural Resource Ministries.

Introduced in the early 2000s at a time when government was looking for ways to reduce the size of the public service, professional reliance refers to a system whereby government staff review permit applications by relying on the assessments prepared by external consultants paid by proponents, and often also rely on reports prepared by external consultants hired by permittees in the verification of compliance with permits and regulations. This professional reliance model can work effectively, but only if there is a sufficient number of government staff with the technical and scientific expertise required to critically assess the studies and reports prepared by external consultants. The reduction in the number of technical and scientific staff in the BC Natural Resource Ministries over the years has diminished the government’s ability to conduct technical reviews of permit applications in a timely fashion and to carry out adequate compliance activities, such as site inspections.

In 2018, thanks to pressure applied by the PEA, the province commissioned a review of the professional reliance model in the BC Natural Resource Ministries, which generated more than one hundred recommendations. These recommendations included the enactment of the Professional Governance Act (PGA), a new legislation that regulates professional governance in the public and private sector, and the creation of the Office of the Superintendent of Professional Governance, which is charged with overseeing the governance of regulatory bodies under the PGA.

The PEA and the Public Service Agency agreed to create a joint Professional Reliance Task Force in 2019 to develop specific measures for improving the professional reliance model in the Natural Resource Ministries. Sarah is the Chair of the PEA-side of the Task Force.

Mining in BC has come a long way since the days of the gold rush in the mid-19th century. Driven by the green energy revolution, governments and industry are more focused than ever on more responsible and environmentally sustainable mining  for critical minerals.

Extracting minerals from the earth is not a renewable industry, but is currently the only option to access metals in the quantities required to meet the rapidly growing demand. As Sarah says, “It took millions of years for metals to concentrate in large quantities within mineral deposits. When metals are mined and used to make cars and electronic devices, they get distributed in very small quantities stored in millions of electronic products spread around the world. It’s very hard to recover and re-use the metals from the tons of electronic waste we generate every day.”

Sarah does not think mining will ever reach the point of having a negligible impact on the environment, but she is optimistic about the possibilities for making the industry cleaner and reducing its environmental footprint.

“I’m passionate about environmental protection, and this job allows me to work in an area where there’s a lot of potential to improve the way mining is done,” she explains. “There are potential great benefits to be gained by improving the regulation. That’s what motivates me.”

[1] The Canadian Critical Minerals Strategy: Powering the Green and Digital Economy for Canada and the World (Ottawa: Natural Resources Canada, 2022)

[2] Nelson Bennett, “Economic Impact of Mining in British Columbia,”, May 23, 2023.