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B.C. Urged to Review Industry-Funded Science Behind Approval of Gravel Mine

A controversial proposal for a gravel mine at the mouth of a salmon-bearing creek on Howe Sound is a graphic illustration of a broken environmental assessment process — one that relies on science paid for by the proponent, say opponents of the Burnco Aggregate Project on McNab Creek.

“This project is going to impact one of only three estuaries in Howe Sound and it’s critical for salmon spawning habitat, but there is no independent data even on how many salmon are in the creek,” Tracey Saxby, marine scientist and volunteer executive director of the environmental organization My Sea to Sky, told DeSmog Canada.

The company plans to extract up to 1.6 million tonnes of gravel a year for 16 years, which would be shipped from a marine barge loading facility to company operations in Burnaby and Langley.

But Saxby says that since estuaries are vital for wild salmon it makes no sense to consider such a project without independent data, pointing out that residents are also concerned about noise, dust and barges travelling to and from the facility every other day.

Saxby is spearheading a campaign that has bombard Environment Minister George Heyman and Energy and Mines Minister Michelle Mungall with more than 2,600 letters asking them to stop the Burnco gravel mine and to rethink the environmental assessment process.

The group is calling for the government to undertake a review of the environmental assessment process for the gravel mine and for a “robust and fully independent baseline assessment of wild salmon populations in McNab Creek.”

Industry-Funded Science at Heart of Brunco Controversy

The Burnco gravel mine, which has been wending its way through the system for six years, is a clear example of what is wrong with the professional reliance model, Saxby said.

B.C.’s professional reliance system allows private companies and project proponents to hire biologists, engineers, geoscientists and other experts to assess environmental risks, instead of the work being done by government professionals or independent contractors hired by government.

It is a controversial self-regulating model, used extensively by the former BC Liberal government after cuts to the civil service, and has come under increasing scrutiny since the 2014 collapse of the Mount Polley tailings pond and a community battle over government approval of a contaminated soil facility above Shawnigan Lake.

Last month, Heyman ordered a review of the province’s professional reliance system, with a final report expected next spring.

Green Party MLA Sonia Furstenau, who was at the centre of the Shawnigan Lake contaminated soil battle, has received 2,300 emails on the Burnco application in less than 24 hours.

That reaction to the proposal is an example of how professional reliance has undermined public trust, Furstenau said in an interview.

“This [gravel mine] is such a clearcut example,” she said.

Review of B.C.’s Environmental Assessment Process Needed: Green Party MLA

“The review [of professional reliance] is necessary because, when people do not trust the government's process, it creates economic uncertainty and the impacts on the community are huge and sometimes devastating,” Furstenau told DeSmog Canada.

When the review recommendations are submitted, government must take them extremely seriously in an effort to address the profound lack of public trust, Furstenau said.

Saxby pointed out that the only information on salmon in McNab Creek came from a citizen scientist and, because of that, the Department of Fisheries and Oceans previously refused permits for a gravel mine.

“This is just one example of what happens and you have to question all the other decisions made by the Environmental Assessment Office,” Saxby said. “There’s a real lack of trust in the integrity of the process.”

“Public engagement is nothing more than a checkbox on a form and the process relies on science that is bought and paid for by the proponent,” she said. “It’s a clear conflict of interest.”

“There is no point engaging in this broken process so we decided to bypass the process and email the ministers directly…We need the province to press pause until it restores public trust in the process.”

A 30-day public comment period on the Burnco application ended this week and the Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency will release a report next month, followed by another public comment period.

Illustration: Carol Linnitt

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When those boxes of heavily redacted documents start to pile in, reporters at The Narwhal waste no time in looking for kernels of news that matter the most. Just ask our Prairies reporter Drew Anderson, who gleefully scanned through freedom of information files like a kid in a candy store, leading to pretty damning revelations in Alberta this spring. Long story short: the government wasn’t being forthright when it claimed its pause on new renewable energy projects wasn’t political. Just like that, our small team was again leading the charge on a pretty big story

In an oil-rich province like Alberta, that kind of reporting is crucial. But look at our investigative work on the Coastal GasLink pipeline to the west, or our Greenbelt reporting out in Ontario. They all highlight one thing: those with power over our shared natural world don’t want you to know how — or why — they call the shots. And we try to disrupt that.

Our journalism is powered by people just like you. We never take corporate ad dollars, or put this public-interest information behind a paywall. Here’s the thing: we need 300 new members to join this month to meet our budget. Will you join the pod of Narwhals that make a difference by helping us uncover some of the most important stories of our time?

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