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Federal Budget 2012: Good for mining, bad for water

The 2012 Federal Budget is a gift to the mining industry and a curse on the environment. With massive growth expected in the mining and energy sector, proposed amendments to environmental regulation will allow companies to skip steps and fast-track approval and permitting processes.

The so-called “one project, one review” measure aims to bypass current environmental assessment processes and download responsibilities to ill-equipped provincial governments or do away with them altogether.

As far as freshwater resources go, documents leaked by the NDP earlier this month revealed that gutting environmental protections within the Fisheries Act would be part of this streamlining and fast-tracking process.

For years, we’ve argued that in the absence of a national water policy, the Fisheries Act with all its shortcomings is the strongest piece of federal legislation when it comes to the protection of freshwater resources. Under the Fisheries Act, the federal government regulates water pollution and prohibits any “deleterious substance” from being discharged into waters frequented by fish, and any works or undertakings that result in the “harmful alteration, disruption or destruction” (HADD) of fish habitat.

According to the documents, the Harper government plans to eliminate fish habitat protection from the Act altogether, replace HADD with a less extensive and more subjective “adverse effects” and limit protections to fish that are deemed to be of economic, ecological and cultural value.

It doesn’t take a fish expert to know it’s impossible to protect fish while allowing for the destruction of fish habitat. Scientists have also argued that this creates a false notion that there are fish without ecological value.

While this proposal is not confirmed explicitly in the budget documents themselves, the Conservatives have refused to clarify the issue in media interviews and have not denied that it is in the works.

The potential impacts of weakening the Fisheries Act will extend beyond the fish populations of the country. The government is severely undermining federal environmental safeguards which have maintained a safe and healthy environment, not only for fish but for all species and communities dependent on clean freshwater for their well-being.

In 2010, the destruction of fish habitat was a primary reason for the Federal government’s rejection of an application by Taseko Mines Limited to develop a copper and gold mine on Tsilhqot’in territory which would destroy Teztan Biny (commonly referred to as Fish Lake), a pristine lake that is also of great cultural and spiritual value to the community.

First Nations groups have raised the fact that the proposed amendments to the Fisheries Act have not received their consent despite the potential to threaten the food security, livelihood and way of life of Indigenous communities.

The Metal Mining Effluent Regulation

Of course, the fact that companies like Taseko can even seek permission to destroy a lake in the first place, is due to a regulatory loophole within the Metal Mining Effluent Regulation of the Fisheries Act called Schedule 2. The loophole has been used by the Harper government since 2006 to enable metal mining companies to request exemption from the Act’s prohibitions against dumping deleterious substances into fish-bearing water or harming fish habitat.

The Metal Mining Effluent Regulation will now be extended to coal and diamond mines making them eligible to apply for Schedule 2 exemptions.

Expansion of mining energy

Budget 2012 is aimed at facilitating and incentivizing massive expansion in the mineral sector. The federal government estimates $500 billion in investments to the water-intensive and water polluting mining and energy sector over the next decade.

The lifting of environmental restrictions comes at a time when provincial governments are planning to expand mining operations throughout the North. Ontario’s “Ring of Fire” is staking tens of thousands of claims throughout the Northern half of the Boreal forest. Quebec’s controversial Plan Nord which was recently scaled back as a result of strong public opposition. British Colombia plans to forge ahead with the building of eight new mines in the next four years and has introduced its own legislation to “cut red tape” and fast track approval processes for mining projects. And Alberta continues to seek expansion of tar sands production with the full backing of the Harper government. Many in the media have linked the gutting of the Fisheries Act to the Northern Gateway pipeline which would impact fish habitat by cutting across hundreds of streams and rivers in order to transport tar sands oil from Alberta to the BC coast toward foreign markets.

Investors in the industry will continue to benefit from public subsidies under the “Mining Exploration Tax Credit for Flow-Through Shares. The credit scheduled to expire in March 2012, has now been extended till the end of 2014, costing an additional $100 million in public revenues. It is aimed at increasing benefits to speculative investors by reducing the after-tax cost of exploration. According to Mining Watch this subsidy aimed at attracting exploration to the North has resulted in the violation of Indigenous rights.[i]

The Council of Canadians has joined allies to demand that environmental legislation be restored and strengthened, not undermined. In the face of weakening federal safeguards, we will continue to support community and Indigenous resistance to environmentally harmful mining projects and fight for a national water policy that protects freshwater resources and recognizes water and sanitation as a human right.

And you can join us! Stay tuned for more information about our Shout Out against Mining Injustice to take place in Vancouver June 1-3.

Letter issued by 600 scientists urging the government to preserve the Fisheries Act
Press release issued by West Coast Environmental Law, the Council of Canadians and others