As pipeline politics dominate headlines, British Columbia is poised to overhaul the process that guides how major resource and development projects proceed.
The review now underway of the environmental assessment process has the potential to restore public confidence in the system that evaluates large developments — from open-pit coal mines to pipelines to hydro dams — by considering the combined effects of multiple projects in a single region and instituting other sweeping changes that critics say are long overdue.
“We had this ridiculous situation in northern B.C. where we had 18 LNG projects, five different pipelines and an oil export project all proposed at the same time here,” said Greg Knox, executive director of the SkeenaWild Conservation Trust.
“People were asking ‘can Kitimat handle these LNG facilities, plus [the] Enbridge [Northern Gateway pipeline], plus [the] Rio Tinto’ [Alcan aluminum smelter], and wondering how it would all impact the environment and people’s health.”
The projects would have affected local air quality at a time when the B.C. government had already granted a permit to the Rio Tinto Alcan smelter allowing the company to increase sulphur dioxide pollution in the Kitimat airshed by more than 50 per cent.
Under B.C.’s current regulations, each resource project is assessed separately, as though the others do not exist. There is no mechanism to study the cumulative impact of various projects on, for example, a single caribou herd, or on overall water or air quality in a community like Kitimat.
Concern about additional air pollution from LNG plants prompted the Kitimat community to ask the B.C. government to conduct a regional environmental assessment to address the combined impact of all the projects and figure out how to proceed with fewer ecological and community impacts.
“We had pipelines going everywhere when it would have made sense to have a pipeline corridor,” Knox said.
But the request was ignored, Knox said.
“They refused. They basically sent some form letter. They rejected doing a regional environmental assessment. It was a boilerplate response.”
The Elk Valley coal mines in southeastern B.C. are another case in point when it comes to the cumulative impacts of resource projects. The valley, which is part of one of North America’s most important wildlife corridors, is home to five operating coal mines.
More than 100 years of coal mining has polluted the Elk River with worrisome contaminants such as selenium, a heavy metal highly toxic to fish and birds. Yet each new mining proposal is examined as though it is the only project polluting the river.
B.C. Auditor General Carol Bellringer flagged the government’s failure to manage the cumulative impacts of the Elk Valley mines as a cause for concern, pointing to the environment ministry’s failure to address known environmental issues and the “lack of sufficient and effective regulatory oversight and action” that has allowed the degradation of water quality.
B.C. Environment Minister George Heyman has said the review of the environmental assessment process is designed to restore public confidence in the system.
But how far must the changes go to examine the impacts of a proposed project like a coal mine expansion in the context of other significant resource projects in the same watershed or airshed? Or to prevent projects staunchly opposed by First Nations from advancing through the system at considerable cost to taxpayers?
Decisions currently made in ‘black box’
West Coast Environmental Law lawyer Gavin Smith and other experts say the overhaul of B.C.’s environmental assessment regime must address the lack of a clear rationale behind government decisions to grant certificates to projects with grievous impacts on First Nations and the environment — projects such as the $10.7 billion Site C dam.
“What’s been happening is that the environmental assessment regime goes into a black box,” Smith told DeSmog Canada.
“All of this work on the assessment happens, and it goes to ministers and they just make a decision. Communities are left feeling like all the time and effort they’ve put into the process has been totally ignored. It’s not actually even clear on what basis the decision was made.”
The B.C. government issued an environmental assessment certificate for the Site C dam in 2014, even though First Nations are fighting the project in court and the dam will cause more ecological damage than any project ever examined in the history of Canada’s Environmental Assessment Act, according to more than 200 leading Canadian scholars.
Only three projects ever rejected in B.C.
No matter how environmentally egregious a project is, or how intense the opposition from First Nations and other local communities, when a major resource project exits B.C.’s current environmental assessment process it is almost certain to be stamped “approved.”
“Even projects which, according to federal law, have been found to have unjustifiable impacts on the environment and on Indigenous culture and governance have been approved through the provincial system,” Smith said.
“It’s a pretty strong indication that the system is built to facilitate getting to yes.”
Only three projects have ever been refused a B.C. environmental assessment certificate, according to an email from the provincial environment ministry.
The Ajax mine, a 1,700-hectare open-pit gold and copper mine proposed for the outskirts of Kamloops by Polish mining giant KGHM, is the only project to be rejected in the past seven years.
A proposed landfill for Metro Vancouver garbage, on the Ashcroft Ranch near Cache Creek, was turned down in 2011, while the Kemess North gold and copper mine north of Smithers was rejected in 2008 — but then approved last year.
Rejected projects often return
Smith said there must be mechanisms built into the revamped environmental assessment process to ensure rejected projects can’t simply be tweaked and re-tendered.
Lawyer Sean Nixon vividly remembers his reaction on the day he heard Taseko Mines had submitted a new plan to extract gold and copper from the area around Fish Lake in B.C.’s interior, a lake sacred to the Tsilhqot’in Nation.
“The first response was incredulity,” recalled Nixon, who had represented the Tsilhqot’in National Government several years earlier during the environmental assessment for Taseko’s project, dubbed the “Prosperity” mine.
The B.C. government granted Taseko a provincial environmental assessment certificate in 2010.
But Ottawa refused to issue a federal certificate, largely because the mine would drain Fish Lake — known as Teztan Biny to the Tsilhqot’in Nation — and turn part of it into a toxic tailings pond that would destroy rainbow trout habitat and wetlands.
That was supposed to be the end of the matter.
But then the project was back again. This time, when Nixon heard about it in 2011, it had a different name: Taseko called it the “New Prosperity” mine.
The project was virtually the same, with one major exception. The company said it would move the tailings pond upstream from Fish Lake — enough of a change to spark a second federal environmental assessment review, at an unknown cost to Canadian taxpayers.
In B.C., the process the company went through was a breeze by comparison. Taseko merely requested an amendment to its environmental assessment certificate, which was duly approved by the provincial government even though Taseko lacked a clear plan to keep tailings pond contaminants out of Fish Lake.
“The province didn’t need details about how the company planned to keep chemical contaminants from destroying the lake,” Nixon told DeSmog Canada. “The mining company said it would work out the details later. And B.C. accepted that claim at face value.”
As with the Prosperity mine, there’s nothing to stop the Ajax project from being re-submitted to the B.C. Environmental Assessment Office with modifications and a new name.
The KGHM website still lists Ajax as a project “under development,” and the company has said it is considering its options.
Early-planning phase would axe non-starter projects
Smith says the revamped system needs to include the ability for the B.C government to say “this project doesn’t stand a reasonable likelihood of success so we’re not wasting taxpayer money doing, for example, a third assessment on a project that’s already been rejected.”
Sustainability criteria — such as targets for maintaining air and water quality – need to be built into the law, and decision-makers need to justify their decisions based on these criteria, Smith said.
To deal with projects as controversial and destructive as the Site C dam or the New Prosperity mine, Smith said B.C.’s environmental assessment process needs to include an “early planning phase,” during which the views of First Nations and other local communities are taken into account well before the project advances through the system.
Perhaps the project is “a total non-starter from the get-go,” said Smith, in which case communities should be able to say “there’s no way this project is going to happen.”
In the case of Taseko, the former B.C. Liberal government approved exploration permits for the New Prosperity project last summer during its final days in office, while Tsilhqot’in members were under a wildfire evacuation notice, even though the federal government had also refused to grant the project an environmental assessment certificate the second time around.
The company subsequently took the federal government to court and lost in December.
Yet Taseko’s website still lists the New Prosperity mine as one of the company’s five properties, while noting “there is considerable uncertainty with respect to successful permitting of the project.”
Smith said he would be surprised if the company submitted a third iteration of the project to the B.C. Environmental Assessment Office. But until B.C.’s environmental assessment process changes, he said, “on paper, Taseko’s New Prosperity project still exists and is still a risk.”
A 12-member advisory committee, led by ecologist Bruce Fraser and Lydia Hwitsum, former Cowichan Tribes chief and former chair of the First Nations Health Council, is due to release a discussion paper on the review process in May, including feedback from the Environmental Assessment Office.
After a public comment period, the government will introduce reforms in the late fall.
The federal government is simultaneously overhauling its environmental assessment process with Bill C-69, but the bill has been criticized for falling short in several key areas.