It’s no secret British Columbians have little faith in the province’s system of ‘professional reliance’ — an arrangement that essentially outsources government’s responsibility to enforce environmental regulations to industry.
It is enough of a concern in the province that the B.C. NDP campaigned on a promise to review the system designed by the former BC Liberal government, which allowed industry-hired professionals to do work that was previously conducted by government employees.
Now the province is taking steps to regain control of environmental monitoring — after 16 years of professional reliance — with a bill introduced in the B.C. legislature Monday.
But already critics have come forward to say the new rules only superficially deal with B.C.’s broken system and that more will have to be done to correct the imbalance created during nearly two decades of industry self-regulation.
“Until they do both the form, which is how the professions regulate themselves, and substance which is laws, statutes, control of the use of natural resources, it is almost meaningless,” Devon Page, director of Ecojustice, told The Narwhal, adding that a coalition of groups will be pushing government to take further steps.
The proposed legislation aims to tighten ethical and technical standards for industry-hired professionals.
“The changes we’re proposing will help restore public confidence in the professional reliance model and give certainty to resource companies that rely on qualified professionals,” B.C. environment minister George Heyman said in a statement.
The fox guarding the henhouse
In previous reporting in The Narwhal professionals have come forward to admit their work has been manipulated, altered and suppressed by companies.
B.C.’s new rules will create an office of the superintendent of professional governance in an effort to ensure “accountability, transparency and the highest levels of professionalism.”
The professional reliance system was based on government setting out expectations and industry hiring professionals such as engineers, biologists and foresters to decide how those objectives would be met.
That regime was supposed to be safeguarded by professional standards, entrenched in government’s compliance and enforcement regulations, but after disasters such as the Mount Polley tailings dam breach and contamination of the Hullcar Aquifer, public skepticism grew along with increasing evidence that the system was rife with problems.
In June, environmental lawyer Mark Haddock released a report, written for the B.C. government, which set out 121 recommendations to pull environmental monitoring back on track.
The legislation addresses his first two recommendations by establishing the new office and bringing government oversight to five professional bodies — the B.C. Institute of Agrologists, Applied Science Technologists and Technicians of B.C., College of Applied Biology, Engineers and Geoscientists B.C. and the Association of B.C. Forest Professionals.
Haddock was especially critical of the failure of professional reliance in management of B.C.’s forests.
“Given the breadth of professional expertise required for forest management, government should consider whether the current laissez faire approach to the use of professionals is adequate,” he said.
The new office will set consistent standards and ensure professional regulatory groups are acting in the public interest.
New rules will require competency and conflict of interest declarations from professionals, whistle-blower protection and emphasis on the duty to report unethical conduct of other professionals.
Minister Heyman said the legislation “symbolizes a recommitment to putting the public interest first when it comes to managing our natural resources.”
Questions remain about on-the-ground industry regulation
However, for many the new rules do not go far enough.
“The meat of why professional reliance has not been working for the public includes a lot more than how we regulate professions. Are government regulations written in a way professionals understand and are they enforceable? None of the more on-the-ground questions are being implemented with this legislation,” said Andrew Gage, a staff lawyer with West Coast Environmental Law.
“This is an important part of the pie, but it’s not the main course. “
The big question now is how oil and gas, forestry and mining operations will be regulated in a way that protects the public and the environment, Gage said.
“The devil will very much be in the details,” he said.
Page from Ecojustice said most of Haddock’s recommendations deal with inconsistent, weak government regulations and, although the province has made a good start, more must be done to address that problem.
Between 2002 and 2005 the former BC Liberal government gutted the province’s resource laws and handed control of natural resources to tenure holders, especially in the forest industry, Page said.
“Until they restore those laws this is just window dressing,” he said.
Bob Peart, coordinator of the Professional Reliance Working Group of Concerned Citizens, agrees that regulatory reform around forests and riparian areas must be addressed.
“And they’ve got to sort out the conflict of interest problem with biologists serving [both] nature and the industry that’s paying them,” Peart said.
“We strongly encourage the government to implement the (Haddock) report’s recommendations in their entirety, in a clear and transparent manner, and now await the next steps in the process,” he said.
More legislation to come
For Green MLA Sonia Furstenau, introduction of the legislation represents a promise made when she first decided to run for election in Cowichan Valley, and she is confident that the necessary regulations and rule changes are on their way.
“The minister has been clear that there will be regulations that need to be filled into this legislation and I want to ensure those regulations start coming as effectively and efficiently as possible,” she said, predicting that they will be introduced next year.
Furstenau’s interest in professional reliance stems from when she was actively involved in fighting a contaminated waste dump in Shawnigan Lake, situated above the watershed that provides drinking water for 12,000 people.
During the intense fight between the community and owners of the dump, it was found that the engineering firm Active Earth, which assured government that the site was structurally sound and would not contaminate aquifers, had signed a profit-sharing deal with the owners of the quarry.
“Then to learn that, under professional reliance, these kinds of agreements are legal, that was the moment when I recognized that what had happened in Shawnigan was a symptom of something much bigger,” Furstenau said.
“The loss of trust we had in our community was happening all over the province in various communities and I didn’t want this to happen in any other communities. I wanted to get to the root of the issue,” she said.
A government news release said work is already underway to modernize land use planning and the ministry is looking at increasing staffing levels in monitoring, compliance and enforcement.