Simon Fraser University scientist Michael Price was in his office on Saturday, putting the finishing touches on an open letter to Premier John Horgan from 180 academic scientists, when his phone rang.
The surprise caller was Kevin Jardine, associate deputy minister for B.C.’s environmental assessment office.
Jardine had got wind of the open letter — which outlines why newly introduced legislation to reform B.C.’s environmental assessment process “lacks scientific rigour, with significant consequences for the health and environment of all British Columbians” — and wanted to walk Price through the legislation.
Despite what Price called a “constructive conversation,” he wasn’t swayed by Jardine’s reassurances that the legislation addresses “three deficiencies” identified by the scientists in their letter: a lack of scientific independence, peer-review and transparency.
“I welcomed a conversation,” Price told The Narwhal. “It was good to hear the government’s side, where they’re coming from…their primary intention is to restore public confidence, to protect the environment.”
At the end of the call Price told Jardine the scientists still intended to release their letter on Monday, which outlines how the proposed legislation “falls short” when it comes to protecting the environment and restoring public confidence in environmental assessments.
“There are many aspects when it comes to scientific rigour that continue to be lacking,” Price explained. “We hope that they’ll go back to the drawing board and tweak a few things that would really help fulfill their stated goals.”
‘A culture susceptible to biased data’
Bill 51, the Environmental Assessment Act, is being studied by a Committee of the Whole House and could be passed as early as this week.
One of the main deficiencies of the legislation, according to the scientists, is that it still allows project proponents to oversee, collect and present the vast majority of evidence for environmental assessments.
“In other words, the information required to assess environmental risk would continue to be gathered and analyzed by those with a vested interest in project approval,” the scientists wrote in their open letter, which was also addressed to five ministers, including Environment Minister George Heyman.
“This lack of independence can create a culture susceptible to biased data collection or interpretation, and will continue to erode the public’s trust in a process that they expect to be fair and evidence-based,” they wrote.
Former B.C. government ecologist Jim Pojar, one of the letter’s signatories, pointed to the Pacific Northwest LNG project in the Skeena estuary as an example of why information used to assess project risk must be gathered and interpreted by independent, qualified professionals who have nothing to gain or lose.
A 1973 report found that Flora Bank, next to the proposed site for a LNG terminal on Lelu Island, has one of the largest eelgrass beds in B.C., describing it “of high biological significance as a fish (especially juvenile salmon) rearing habitat.”
But Stantec, the engineering firm hired by Pacific Northwest LNG, filed a report with the Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency (CEAA) in 2015 claiming there will be little to no environmental impact from building an LNG terminal next to Flora Bank.
That submission, which did not include field data on fish, concluded “salmon do not use Flora Bank eelgrass habitat for nursery habitat or other life dependent processes.”
Pojar said the consultant’s report “turned out to be flawed.”
“In one case they didn’t find a particular fish population because it was the wrong time of year,” he said in an interview.
Even though the NDP government says the data collection process for environmental assessments will be far more rigorous under the new legislation, Price said it is “problematic” for project proponents to remain in charge of data collection.
“Even if there is no bias there’s going to be that perceived sense of bias in the public’s eye that the proponent is working with those who are gathering the information. We really feel strongly that that needs to be totally independent.”
Amendments to Bill 51 still an option
The government could amend the bill to allow baseline data for environmental assessments to be collected by contractors who are paid by project proponents but hired by the government, said Price, who commended the NDP for overhauling the Act, calling it a “good start” and noting that it allows First Nations communities to be involved at the start of assessments.
Heyman said “unfortunately” the scientists, who are mainly from B.C., didn’t approach him or the environmental assessment office to seek clarification before releasing their letter.
“I appreciate their concerns and share many of their concerns and that’s exactly why the issues they raise are in fact addressed in the Act and I’ll be making that clearer during debate on the bill,” Heyman told The Narwhal.
“The environmental assessment office contacted them over the weekend to walk them through how the bill does provide for the independence and transparency that they seek, the release of information and I think they got some of that message. Unfortunately they had distributed the letter already.”
Lack of peer review standards
Pojar, a forest ecologist research scientist and author of B.C. natural history books, said critical thinkers will look at all sides of the issue “and decide for yourself which makes more sense.”
He pointed out that the majority of the scientists who signed the letter “do not have a vested interest, don’t work for the government and most are not employees of environmental consulting companies.”
The scientists also zeroed in on the legislation’s failure to require independent peer review of evidence about a project’s proposed environmental risk, an omission Pojar called “a big deal” for scientists.
He said peer review is standard practice and “part of the code of ethics” for scientists. “It’s the way scientists are supposed to operate.”
Instead, the legislation sets up technical advisory committees to evaluate project risk that will include provincial ministry staff who might not be experts in a relevant field such as toxicology or salmon biology.
“This status quo approach fails to require those responsible for evaluating a project’s environmental risk to have the necessary expertise to adequately assess the evidence,” said the scientists’ letter.
Data used in assessments kept from public
And then there’s the question of transparency, which has been lacking in projects such as the Site C dam on B.C.’s Peace River.
Under the proposed legislation there is no requirement that all data generated by the project proponent, or gathered by a technical advisory committee, be made public, according to the scientists.
Nor does the proposed legislation include criteria for how the government’s final assessment decisions will be made, they say.
“At the moment there’s no requirement for them to make all records available,” Price explained.
But Heyman said all documents — “with the exception of something that is proprietary information” — will be made public and no amendments to the Act are necessary.
He said the new project design process outlined by the Act will determine “exactly what kind of information is needed, where it should come from and where it should be reviewed.”
And both the technical advisory committee and the Environmental Assessment Office have the option to seek further “outside independent advice,” Heyman said.
“It was very important to me that this project be trustworthy, that it be transparent and that information be independent.”
Price said the bill contains language that gives the technical advisory committee or the Environmental Assessment Office “options” such as calling for independent evaluators. But scientists need more assurance than “options,” he said.
“If there’s no requirement we have to trust that the government or the Environmental Assessment Office will follow through and ensure that things remain independent and they maintain their scientific credibility.”
“If they have these options, these loopholes, it doesn’t fill me with a lot of confidence that the process will be as rigorous as it needs to be.”