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Is B.C.’s ‘wild west’ environmental monitoring about to come to an end?

Professional reliance report outlines how to restore public trust

The B.C. government has released its review of the professional reliance system, which was implemented in the early 2000s and relinquished much of the provincial government’s responsibility for environmental monitoring to private companies hired by industry.

This ‘professional reliance’ system has been pointed to as a key factor in the Mount Polley mine disaster and many of B.C.’s other high-profile environmental controversies.

The new report makes 121 recommendations on how to improve the system, calling on the government to restore environmental legislation and capacity and create new governing bodies to monitor professionals.

“It’s really comprehensive,” said Devon Page, director of Ecojustice, calling the report “thoughtful” and “thorough.”

Author Mark Haddock describes in detail the failings of professional reliance over the 130-page report — especially in forestry.

“Most problematic are the Forest and Range Practices Act and Riparian Areas Protection Act due to the extent to which they restrict government’s authority,” he wrote.

“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.”

Translated from government-safe language, this is a damning assertion: Haddock spends more than 10 pages detailing the ways government has abdicated its own responsibility for managing forests, putting that authority instead in the hands of industry.

“It’s kind of been the Wild West,” said Page, who has previously described the province’s resource management as “gold rush-era laws.”

“That was kind of epitomized by professional reliance.”

New body for regulation and oversight recommended

One central recommendation in the report is the creation of an overarching body, an Office of Professional Regulation and Oversight.

That office would bring together the five professional associations, currently independent of one another, that regulate their respective professions, including foresters, geoscientists and engineers, technicians, agrologists and biologists. Together they represent more than 40,000 professionals.

“That’s similar to the health professions,” Page says.

It goes on to recommend that some “critical elements” of professional governance be legislated, standardizing the ways the associations appoint members and handle complaints and discipline.

The office would be responsible for setting processes for investigations, incompetence, negligence and sanctions.

It also recommends whistleblower protections for professionals who speak up about unprofessional or negligent conduct.

Need for professional independence

A major drawback of the professional reliance system was that it often forced professionals into situations in which they were essentially asked to be “cheerleaders,” as one consultant put it in an interview, for the projects they were meant to be reviewing.

“In recent years, professional reliance has played a significant role in the loss of public trust in decision making around industrial activity,” said MLA Sonia Furstenau in a press release.

The report agreed.

“Ministry personnel interviewed noted that it is sometimes difficult to distinguish between professional opinion and proponent opinion, as professionals frequently act as advocates for their clients or employer in some sectors,” Haddock wrote

He recommended that the government identify ways to preserve professional independence.

This would be reinforced by a set of triggers that would limit the proponent from being able to choose its own experts. Those would come into effect in situations where there is a high risk to safety or the environment, where a professional is likely to have a conflict of interest and in several other situations.

The government has already committed to implementing some of the recommendations by the fall.

”We will immediately engage with the various professional associations covered in the report, with a goal of making tangible changes this fall to improve government oversight of qualified professionals to enhance public confidence in natural resource decision making,” said Environment Minister George Heyman in a press release.

There are powerful forces set against the implementation of the report’s recommendations, says former Sierra Club executive director Bob Peart: primarily the industries that have had an easy go of things since the government handed over the reins on much of its decision making.

“Industry likes what they’ve got,” Peart said.

The B.C. NDP has made commitments to looking at a broad swath of environmental issues, from forestry to LNG to fish farming throughout its mandate.

But, Peart says, “if professional reliance isn’t fixed, none of that will really matter.”

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