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B.C. Moves Ahead With Review of Controversial Environmental Assessment Process

There are so many problems with B.C.’s current environmental assessment process that a review, announced Wednesday by Environment Minister George Heyman, will almost certainly mean improvements, say environmental groups.

Heyman said it is clear that the public has lost trust in the process, leading to conflict and uncertainty and government’s priorities are working with First Nations and ensuring the process is science-based.

“We’ll be working with Indigenous groups at every step of the revitalization process,” Heyman said.

“Our government wants to ensure we have a process that’s transparent, science-based, timely and provides early indications of the likelihood of success. This work will also contribute to our government’s commitment to fully implement the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples,” he said.

An overhaul of the process that decides whether major resource and development projects should proceed, will be spearheaded by a 12-member advisory committee, led by ecologist Bruce Fraser, former chair of the Forest Practices Board and the provincial Task Force on Species at Risk, and Lydia Hwitsum, former Cowichan Tribes chief and former chair of the First Nations Health Council.

Other committee members include First Nations, industry and union representatives and specialists in impact assessment, climate change and renewable energy.

The committee will release a discussion paper in May, including feedback from the Environmental Assessment Office, which will be holding government-to-government meetings with First Nations and meeting with industry, local governments and non-governmental organizations.

After a public comment period, the government will introduce reforms late fall. Priorities include enhancing public confidence, transparency and “protecting the environment while supporting sustainable economic development,” says a government news release.

Assessments already underway will continue under the current system.

B.C.’s environmental assessment process brewing controversy

Controversies over environmental assessments in B.C., combined with the previous Liberal government’s increasing reliance on industry professionals for advice — something now under review by the province — have included the Site C dam, the Mount Polley tailings dam collapse and approval of the Woodfibre LNG facility on Howe Sound.

A high-profile conflict erupted after approval of a contaminated soil dump near Shawnigan Lake, a battle that pitted the community against the former B.C. Liberal government and revealed deep flaws in the assessment process, such as the “independent” engineering company being paid by the proponent.

B.C. Green Party MLA for Cowichan Valley Sonia Furstenau, who was at the heart of the fight against the soil dump, said the review is a first step in restoring public trust in the environmental assessment process.

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“There have been too many instances where development has failed to ensure the health and safety of our local communities. This has left communities and First Nations with no choice but to use the courts to advocate for their own protection,” she said in a statement.

“A robust environmental assessment process that includes adequate consultation and thorough scientific, evidence-based analysis will avoid costly legal challenges and save government from dealing with expensive clean-ups when projects go awry.”

A strong process will also provide greater certainty for industry, Furstenau said.

Ecosystems, cumulative effects should be considered in assessments

Gavin Smith, West Coast Environmental Law staff lawyer, said the move to overhaul the system is sorely needed as the current model is not working.

“It’s time for a new approach, one that safeguards ecosystems, recognizes indigenous jurisdiction, helps B.C. meet its climate commitments and responds to community voices,” he said.

A recent paper by WCEL examined flaws in the system such as weak public participation, the failure to consider the cumulative effects of development and the failure to recognize First Nations as decision-makers in their territories.

The review has the potential to ensure better decisions about projects such as mines and pipelines and to protect against “death by a thousand cuts” from the combined effects of may developments in a region, Smith said.

Peter McCartney, Wilderness Committee climate campaigner, echoed the long overdue theme and pointed to the Woodfibre decision as an example of valid concerns being ignored.

Bringing First Nations into the process and transparency around how public comment is taken into account should be priorities, McCartney said.

“And there needs to be a route to ‘no’ in this process,” he said.

Instead of looking at mitigation for problems such as putting a gravel mine in a salmon spawning area, there needs to be a clear ultimatum, early in the process, that says the project will not go ahead, he said.

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Jens Wieting, Sierra Club B.C. Forest and Climate Campaigner, is cautiously optimistic that the plethora of problems with environmental assessments can be fixed.

“First, we need a climate test as part of environmental assessments because that will show us that some of the projects are inconsistent with our goals to stabilize the climate. That is true for LNG terminals and the Kinder Morgan pipeline,” he said.

Also, the entire ecosystem must be considered when a project is proposed.

“Ecosystems and endangered species are already under pressure and industrial development can be the tipping point. Look at the southern resident orcas — we know the Kinder Morgan tanker traffic would lead to extinction,” Wieting said.

Science-based decisions are needed and, if a project leads to extinction or the collapse of an ecosystem, it must be rejected, he said.

The overhaul of the provincial environmental assessment process comes after an announcement that the federal process is being streamlined.

A new Impact Assessment Agency will be tasked with carrying out reviews of all major projects, with a mandate to include health and social impacts and long-term effects on Indigenous people. Simultaneously the National Energy Board will be replaced by the Canadian Energy Regulator.

Judith Lavoie is an award-winning journalist based in Victoria, British Columbia. Lavoie covered environment and First Nations stories for the…

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