The public is at risk of another Walkerton if the government passes proposed changes to the federal environmental assessment act, says a major environmental group.
The federal government proposed changes to the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act last week. Unusually, the changes were buried in a bill related to this year’s budget.
Bill C-9, which implements parts of the federal budget, was tabled March 29. Buried in amongst the usual tweaks to income tax law is a proposed change to section 15 of the assessment act — a change not mentioned in budget documents.
The act currently requires federal environmental assessments to consider every construction and operation related to a project. If you had an upgrader in Sturgeon County with a water intake on the North Saskatchewan River, for example, a federal assessment would have to look at the impact of both elements, not just one or the other. The proposed changes would let the environment minister restrict an assessment to one or more components of a project.
This means the government could choose to have an assessment focus on a tailings pond for a new mine while ignoring the mine itself, said John Bennett, executive director for the Sierra Club of Canada — an act the Supreme Court said was illegal earlier this year.
“These [changes] are taking us back years and years,” Bennett said. “It basically guts the federal environmental assessment law.”
Environmental groups have long criticized the government for limiting the scope of environmental assessments, said Laura Bowman, a lawyer with the Environmental Law Centre in Edmonton. “If you don’t assess the entire project … it can look like [its] effects are insignificant where they are in fact significant,” she said.
The change sidesteps a January 2010 Supreme Court ruling against the government, Bowman continued, which found it could not exclude a mine from its assessment of a B.C. mine and tailings pond. The change would apparently let the government make similar exclusions for any project, including ones in the oilsands.
Bennett accused the Conservatives of sneaking these changes into the budget instead of introducing them as part of the act’s scheduled review this year. The Liberals are unlikely to vote down the budget, he added, which means these changes are likely to pass.
Brent Rathgeber, member of Parliament for Edmonton-St. Albert, dismissed these arguments as “conspiracy theories.”
“The reality is that if [opposition members] felt so strongly that these changes are going to weaken environmental assessment, they had a way to defeat them, but they chose not to.” These measures would affect environmental assessment funding, so it makes sense that they would go into a bill on the budget.
Projects will still get fully assessed, Rathgeber said, as elements left out of a federal assessment would go into the provincial one. “It doesn’t weaken Canada’s environmental protection. What it does is reduce the duplication.”
Federal and provincial governments already reduce duplication through joint assessments, Bennett said. “Anyone who studies ecology knows everything is connected to everything else. You can’t study part of a project or one project next to another and not look at what’s happening to the environment.”
These changes put the public at risk of another Walkerton, Bennett said, referring to the deaths of seven Walkerton, Ont., residents from contaminated water which were blamed, in part, on poor government oversight. “Something will not get noticed because we went too fast,” he said.
“I don’t think we should ever not do the right thing by the environment just because we want to save a few thousand dollars.”