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How to protect water through the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act – Part 4

This is the last part in a four-part blog series that aims to help people to participate in the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act (CEAA) consultations organized by the federal government and to advocate for better assessment and protection of water.

This blog series gives background information and talking points for the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act (CEAA) review process, which is part of the Trudeau government’s commitment to restore and modernize freshwater and environmental protections. In part one, we gave background information on the CEAA review process and navigable waters. Part two focused on Environmental Assessment in Context. Part three focused on Overarching Indigenous Considerations.

Public workshops and panel presentations began on September 19. If you are interested in participating in these, please register as soon as possible as spaces can fill up quickly in some locations.

In this blog, we will focus on questions the review panel have raised under the third of the seven themes, Planning Environmental Assessment, and provide some talking points and points for consideration. 

Photo by Joe Brusky

Question 1: Under what circumstances should federal environmental assessment be required?

All pipelines and transmission lines must once again be reviewed with their regard to impacts on water.  The impacts of mining, fishfarm, logging and other projects on navigable waters must once again be assessed on all lakes and rivers beyond the 91 lakes, 62 rivers and 3 oceans outlined in the schedule of the Navigation Protection Act. This was previously done through a mechanism under the former Navigable Waters Protection Act. To read more about how the CEAA and former Navigable Waters Protection Act worked together to protect navigable waterways, read the first blog here

The Energy East pipeline is an example of a project that is moving forward without scrutiny of how it will impact navigation and waterways. The 4,600-kilometre pipeline would cross and endanger 2,963 identified waterways and countless smaller streams and wetlands along the way. Energy East threatens the drinking water of 5 million people and in many cases would impact navigation such as transportation, fishing and recreation. 

Question 2: For project environmental assessments, do you think the current scope and factors considered are adequate?

Federal authorities need a more accurate picture of the environment that may be impacted by the activity. The scope and factors of Environmental Assessments must once again include:

  • Basic information about waterways: the name, width and depth of any waterway affected by the project and a description of how the waterway is likely to be affected.

  • The impact of a project or development on navigable waters or any unique or special resources (such as heritage sites)

  • The “components of the environment [in general] that are likely to be affected by the project and a summary of potential environmental effects.” This includes information relating to the terrain, water bodies, air and vegetation. 

Question 3: Are there other things (effects, factors, etc.) that should be scoped into an environmental assessment?

Cumulative impacts (especially in relation to climate change factors) and impacts on navigable waterways should be scoped into environmental assessments 

Questions 4: Under which circumstances should environmental assessment be undertaken at the regional, strategic or project-level? 

Resource extraction projects are often assessment and approved piece-meal which hinders governments and community members from understanding the cumulative and regional effects as well as the impacts downstream and on the entire watershed.

Question 5: Who should contribute to the decision of whether a federal environmental assessment is required?

Indigenous communities,  local residents and residents downstream should help decide whether a federal assessment should be required. 

Summary of Thoughts

Many of the changes we are suggesting were previously done through the Navigable Waters Protection Act (NWPA), or other freshwater or environmental legislation. However it may be reasonable to expect that we should embed certain triggers directly into the CEAA, such as when a waterway near a proposed project is used for drinking or other activity such as fishing, tourism, or ceremony. Large projects like pipelines should be subjected to thorough environmental assessment seems an obvious change that must be made.

We believe that environmental assessments’ primary purpose must be seen as protecting invaluable natural resources or the commons including water, as opposed to simply legitimizing industrial projects. Environmental assessment can help us as a society to think about and understand pressing issues of our time, such as climate change, the health of Indigenous communities, and providing clean water for all. The more information we have, the more able we are to make decisions, generate creative solutions, and respect the rights of all people to lead healthy lives. 

A very important factor for the future and credibility of environmental assessments is building in the expectation and structure for an assessment to come back with the potential for a “no” scenario. If the impacts to certain aspects of the environment are too great, such as risk to drinking water or contribution to climate change on a cumulative scale, then a project must be turned down. Similarly, under the Free, Prior and Informed Consent obligation, when an Indigenous community does not give consent for a project then that project cannot go forward. This would begin to establish the nation-to-nation relationship that the Trudeau government has committed to. 

Environmental assessment is an important part of our societal progress. It is a system of oversight that must not only reduce or mitigate environmental and social harm, but must stand strong in the protection of human rights and the greater good. In many cases it may be the line of defence for fragile ecosystems and watersheds, for irreplaceable natural processes that we rely on, and for the dignity of people. An environmental assessment is a serious contract that governments and communities must honour to the best of their ability. 

As National Chairperson Maude Barlow says, “This is the moment we have been waiting for. Together we can finally undo the damage done by the former Harper government and secure a better water future for Canada and Indigenous communities. Water is life. We must come together to protect every lake and every river and learn to live more lightly on this planet.”

This blog was written with Prairies Organizing Assistant Diane Connors. This is part of the Council of Canadians’ Every Lake, Every River campaign. The goal of the campaign is to restore and enhance protections to the 99% of waterways in Canada that were lost in 2012.

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