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The case for strong environmental assessment

Calvin Sandborn, Vancouver Sun, June 5, 2012

Those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it. — Winston Churchill

Canadians should worry about Bill C-38 — Ottawa’s bid to gut the Environmental Assessment Act.

Let’s not forget that there is a compelling reason for environmental assessments of industrial projects. In the days before environmental assessment laws, much unnecessary damage was done to the environment, to people, to the economy, and to taxpayers. For example:

• Mines destroyed fisheries in many Canadian rivers, including B.C.’s Tsolum River.

• Pulp mill pollution closed shellfish harvesting along hundreds of kilometres of B.C. coastline.

• An Ontario industrial plant poisoned the Grassy Narrows and White-dog first nations with mercury — a legacy that ravaged their nervous systems for decades.

• In Canada’s north, the Faro and Giant mines poisoned the environment — and cost taxpayers over $800 million to clean up.

• A number of Canadian lead smelters contaminated local children, likely affecting brain function.

• The steel plant in Sydney, N.S., transformed an estuary into a hazardous waste site. The cleanup cost taxpayers $400 million.

• At one time Lake Erie was declared virtually dead — and its U.S. tributary, the Cuyahoga River, caught fire.

When rivers began catching fire, even conservatives such as Richard Nixon were convinced. President Nixon signed a law requiring environmental assessments in 1969. Canada followed suit in 1992. The vast majority of developed countries now require environmental assessments of industrial projects.

Assessments are almost universally required because they are necessary to ensure that industry:

• Avoids — or reduces — environmental harm, where possible;

• Uses resources efficiently and maintains the environment for other businesses (e.g., tourism, fisheries);

• Pays for the harm it does, instead of sticking taxpayers with the tab.

The current federal environmental assessment regime has largely worked. While it approves the vast majority of projects, it often improves them and reduces environmental impacts. And, very occasionally, it rejects particularly harmful projects. For example, it nixed Taseko Mine’s proposal to drain B.C.’s Fish Lake, a premier fishing lake home to 85,000 rainbow trout.

However, Ottawa seems to have forgotten why it is smart to assess project impacts ahead of time — why we should look before we leap. Instead, government ministers vigorously decry assessment “red tape.”

This government rhetoric against “red tape” is eerily familiar. It echoes the rhetoric of U.S. Republicans who acted to weaken environmental assessment in that country. Canadians should take note. This U.S. approach did not turn out well.

Consider the catastrophic 2010 oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. Because the U.S. law had been weakened, British Petroleum was no longer required to do a “worst case analysis” of deepwater drilling. And the weakened U.S. law exempted BP from having to carry out an environmental impact analysis of its drilling. Yet this missing environmental assessment could have prevented the catastrophe.

Of course, after the BP spill, the U.S. government acknowledged the problem and toughened up their assessment requirements again. But that was too late — 11 workers were already dead, and five million barrels of oil had surged into the gulf.

Clearly, loosening environmental rules can impose a heavy cost. And Bill C-38 dramatically loosens the rules. The bill would:

• Reduce the number and scope of assessments required;

• Narrow the kinds of environmental effects to be assessed;

• Disenfranchise lay people without a “direct interest” from participating in assessments — silencing Vancouverites’ submissions about remote projects like Northern Gateway;

• Authorize Ottawa to abdicate, and leave many assessments to the provinces. This is worrisome. The B.C. Assessment office approved the idea of draining Fish Lake — and virtually never recommends that a project be rejected.

This is no way to protect the national interest. Canadians — like the people of the Gulf Coast — may rue the day.

Calvin Sandborn is legal director of the University of Victoria Environmental Law Clinic.

© Copyright (c) The Vancouver Sun



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