Posted 20 July 2011, by Derrick Penner, The Vancouver Sun (Postmedia Network), vancouversun.com
VANCOUVER — With the potential for billions of dollars worth of resource development projects building up in British Columbia, a northwestern B.C. group is pushing for changes to the provincial environmental review process.
The Smithers-based Northwest Institute for Bioregional Research used Taseko Mines Ltd.’s Prosperity mine proposal southwest of Williams Lake, which was approved by the provincial environmental process but rejected by the federal review, as its example to argue that the federal process is more rigorous and the provincial approach needs strengthening.
The institute sees it as an important issue because with so many projects in the works there is increasing pressure from industry on governments to harmonize the assessment process, said Pat Moss, the group’s executive director.
“In principle, I don’t oppose [harmonization],” Moss said. “But it certainly can’t be to the lowest common denominator.”
Typically it is the province that bears the responsibility for environmental assessments of major projects on Crown land, but projects such as the Prosperity proposal trigger a federal assessment when they cross into areas of federal jurisdiction, such as its responsibility for fish habitat under the Fisheries Act.
In its review of the Prosperity situation, Moss made the case that the federal process appears to be more thorough and accommodating of public input.
The Northwest Institute commissioned environmental lawyer Mark Haddock to review the different processes.
Haddock, an associate of the University of Victoria Environmental Law Centre, concluded that the B.C. process proceeded without complete information, lacked clearly defined standards that federal legislation contains and missed or dismissed impacts the federal process defined as significant in favour of the proposed mine’s economic benefits.
Moss said she doesn’t oppose factoring economic issues into a review, but “I don’t think they should trump environmental concerns.”
“The closer you get to the site of projects, and if the assessment is done at the provincial level, there is just that much more pressure on governments and regulators [to approve projects],” she added.
“I think it’s really critical we continue to have that federal oversight.”
B.C. Environment Minister Terry Lake defended the provincial process as being thorough.
“Of course the environment has to be at the top of the list, but I think it’s important to consider those other aspects [of economic and social benefits], which for the federal review perhaps don’t carry the same sort of weighting,” Lake said.
“At the same time, we always need to be looking at how we do things and if there are concerns out there or criticisms, we always need to listen and find ways of doing things better.”
Lake said the Ministry of Environment has already taken action on a recent report by the B.C. Auditor-General’s Office that highlighted a lack of oversight of projects once they were approved by the environmental assessment office.
Lake said his ministry has created a position for a director whose job is to ensure that the agencies responsible for issuing permits to resource projects are overseeing compliance with conditions imposed as part of their environmental reviews.
On harmonization, Lake said the goal is to cooperate with federal agencies where projects cross jurisdictions so there is no duplication of effort, but he said that might not always be possible, and doubts it will result in unified decisions.
“I don’t think we should ever take away the ability to have independent decision-making,” Lake said, because the levels of government have different obligations within their jurisdictions.
Pierre Gratton, president of the Mining Association of Canada, said that in one harmonization experiment Ottawa has delegated responsibility for managing the assessment process to the province so there is no duplication, but has not ceded its own decision-making authority.
“The industry accepts there will be times when projects will be turned down,” Gratton said, but the industry would prefer to learn that earlier in a process where proponents are generating only one set of reports and going through a single public-consultation process.