Alarms raised over B.C. environmental reviews

Report finds B.C.'s environmental review process lacking.

  • Aug. 6, 2011 8:00 p.m.

A new report from Smithers-based Northwest Institute (NWI) has come down hard on the provincial environmental assessment office’s processes for reviewing proposals, particularly as it related to Taseko Mines’ Prosperity project.

NWI commissioned the report, written by environmental lawyer Mark Haddock, because the Prosperity environmental review was a unique chance to compare the provincial and federal processes.

“This is the first time in quite awhile that there’s been an environmental assessment done by both the provincial and federal governments separately. Normally they have what they call a harmonized process,” said NWI Executive Director Pat Moss.

The environmental assessment process approved the mine provincially but the federal government’s own review said no to the project.

According to this report, the provincial process leaves much to be desired.

“[Haddock] found that the provincial review was much less thorough, didn’t look at the full range of issues that the federal one did,” said Moss. “Overall there was a sense that it was a much more rushed process.”

Among the highlights of what the report found was that the provincial Environmental Assessment Office (EAO)  dismissed or missed many impacts the federal panel found significant, the EAO did not analyze cumulative effects on grizzly bears, and that the EA lacks clear policies and guidelines in addressing issues such as fish and wildlife.

The report paints a bleak picture, especially when taken together with the recent Auditor General’s report that criticized the EAO’s ability to monitor projects after a certificate has been issued.

“The two [reports] coupled together certainly give a sense that we can’t have a lot of confidence that environmental assessment in B.C. is really doing the job it was meant to which is to do a thorough assessment of environmental assessment,” said Moss.

Acting Executive Director for the EAO, John Mazure, points out that the provincial and federal processes have different mandates but that the B.C. process still looks at the big picture.

“If you had a mining project and forestry activity in the same area, if the mining project was coming through our process we’d certainly look at how the impacts of that mine on bears, for example, would be affected but we wouldn’t look at that in isolation of the forestry activity,” he said.

He thinks the provincial process for Prosperity did look at issues such as bears, along with other key values like water qualify and fish habitat.

“I think we did [look at grazing and bears] and our conclusions are simply different than [the federal’s]. That’s the bottom line coming out of that one.”

He did highlight some differences in the way the provincial and federal processes work out.

“They do have a different mandate than we do. We look at not only environmental affects, we look at health, social, heritage, economic. There are some differences in what we look at.”

He did counter the claim that there is no clear policy or guideline in the provincial process.

“Our process, although the legislation gives us lots of flexibility, some people have criticized that, but I think if you look at the procedures and policies we follow when we conduct an [environmental assessment], it’s fairly robust. You can’t just look at our Act and come to a conclusion, I think you need to actually look at what we’re doing.”

The report will play a role in how the EAO improves itself in the future, as does all reports and self-reflection by the EAO itself.

“Like the Auditor General’s report we’re really taking to heart and looking at what we need to do there. We have a culture and practice of continuous improvement anyway so whenever we finish a project we have a debriefing and we talk about what worked well and what didn’t,” he said. “We’ll do the same with this report … if we have to revise what we’re doing we’ll certainly do that.”

Deputy energy and mines critic Doug Donaldson said having this study is good and the information points to the concerns over limitations of the process.

It also ties into concerns he has after hearing reports that the federal environmental assessment office will have its budget cut by 43 per cent in the coming years.

He said all this creates questions over government’s role in maintaining environmental oversight.

“Investors need certainty. If there’s questions in the public’s mind then that could create delays, that could create non-confidence from the public in the process … that translates to a lack of investment,” said Donaldson.

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