Scathing report raises environmental concerns

British Columbians should be shocked by a scathing auditor general’s report exposing major flaws in the environmental review process for major projects.

British Columbians should be shocked by a scathing auditor general’s report exposing major flaws in the environmental review process for major projects.

The report is devastating and contradicts past government claims about a rigorous reviews and careful monitoring. And the failures should surely have been obvious if anyone in government had been paying attention.

The B.C. Environmental Assessment Office is responsible for reviewing and approving major developments – mines, dams, new resort communities and the like. Right now, it has more than $30 billion worth of projects under review.

It can reject proposals, in theory. But that has only happened once, while 115 projects have been approved.

But when the office issues an environmental assessment certificate, it does include commitments the developer is legally required to meet to minimize environmental damage. The office tries to ensure that the impact of projects is mitigated by these measures.

Auditor general John Doyle looked at that aspect of the office’s operations. It was a dismaying exercise.

The Environmental Assessment Office doesn’t know if the conditions it imposes in approving projects are “measurable and enforceable,” the audit said. The wording is often weak – companies are ordered to “try” to avoid damage, for example. As a result, the developers can’t be held to account for violating the legal conditions of their permits.

And anyway, the auditor general found, the office makes no real effort to check on whether the commitments are being obeyed on the ground.

There was a pilot program that saw inspectors actually visit development sites, to see if the rules were being followed and if they were achieving the desired environmental goals. But the program was cancelled.

The assessment office relies on compliance reports from the companies. But some companies don’t send them in and there is no formal system for tracking the reports or specific problems.

Doyle also found the Environmental Assessment Office fails to provide enough information to the public to allow accountability.

None of this is to suggest companies or developers are setting out to do environmental damage. And other government agencies, in some cases, are also checking environmental performance.

But it’s simply reality that some operators will cut corners and take shortcuts. Some measures will prove ineffective and could be adjusted – if the office was actually visiting the sites.

Without an effective assessment and monitoring process, needless, lasting damage could be done.

The report is bad news for Premier Christy Clark. Like Gordon Campbell, she has insisted the province’s process is tough and effective.

And both have argued that it shouldn’t be necessary for major projects to go through both federal and provincial reviews.

That’s a tough sell when the province’s efforts are questionable at best.

The provincial assessment process was already being questioned. It approved the Prosperity mine southwest of Williams Lake, judging the environmental damage – which included turning a lake into a tailings dump – as acceptable given the economic benefits.

But a federal review came to the opposite conclusion, and the Harper government said no to the mine. (The company subsequently decided it didn’t need to destroy the lake after all, but the project still has not been approved.)

Clark lobbied Stephen Harper to reverse the decision, presumably citing the B.C. environmental review. His refusal looks wise at this point.

B.C. is resource-rich and development – whether of new pipelines, mines, resort towns or run-of-river power projects – brings jobs and economic growth. There has been a significant boom, particularly in the oil and gas sector.

But governments have insisted they are doing an effective job of protecting the environment by imposing strict conditions on companies to ensure damage is minimized.

That’s not happening.

The auditor general has offered a damaging critique of a cornerstone of environmental protection. It’s up to Clark to respond with an effective plan and funding.

Footnote: Environment Minister Terry Lake wouldn’t respond to the report; he said he wants to meet Doyle first. That’s baffling. The government gets auditor’s reports well in advance so its response can be included in the published version. The minister should have been ready.

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