NEWS: Watchdog investigates stimulus spending impact on the environment

Brent Patterson
9 years ago
The Montreal Gazette reports that, "The federal government is coming under fire for putting ecosystems at risk as Parliament's environmental watchdog probes thousands of stimulus projects that may have been approved without proper scrutiny. The investigation, led by federal Environment and Sustainable Development Commissioner Scott Vaughan, follows a preliminary assessment by the auditor general that suggested at least two-thirds of the projects received a green light without an environmental assessment. Overall, the audit found that 93 per cent of the thousands of infrastructure stimulus projects went ahead without a federal environmental assessment of their impacts, as was previously required before the government changed the rules." The Toronto Star adds, "The auditor was told that 93 per cent of the 7,000 project proposals reviewed under the $4 billion Infrastructure Stimulus Fund were excluded from environmental assessment. Many proposals were excluded even though the government lacked adequate information to determine whether an exclusion was warranted, the auditors found." "Thousands of construction projects were excluded from standard environmental screening under a never-publicly-debated directive by the Conservative cabinet as the federal government rushed out $47 billion in economic stimulus, according to (Auditor General Sheila) Fraser’s audit. ...Exemptions for environmental assessment reviews of proposed projects were expanded by changes in government regulations, Fraser said. 'In order to bring about the changes quickly, the regulations were not released in draft form for public comment before they took effect,' the report noted." "Projects were approved without adequate environmental impact assessments, she said Tuesday. But the damage to the environment won’t become clear until the projects are finished next year, Fraser said. ...(Fraser) said Environmental Commissioner Scott Vaughan will be conducting a probe to examine the impact of these projects on the environment." ONE POSSIBLE EXAMPLE A government media release issued in August 2009 has Prime Minister Stephen Harper stating that, "The Government of Canada is taking extraordinary and unprecedented action to stimulate the Canadian economy in this time of global economic instability. The extension of Highway 5, the largest infrastructure project in the Outaouais, will help the region's economic development, create high-paying jobs and greatly enhance the quality of life and safety of residents of the Outaouais region. This project has been made possible through the cooperation of the governments of Canada and Quebec.  Working together allows us to stimulate the economy in these difficult times so that we can emerge from this global recession in the strongest position of any of the major industrialized countries." The Wakefield Low Down newspaper reported this past September that, “A concerned Wakefield, Quebec citizens group is pushing the federal government to conduct a more thorough study on the environmental impact of the planned extension of Hwy 5. Transport Canada released a preliminary report on the effects of the highway, which states that the spring water could be contaminated by the construction of the project. ...The 200-strong group - Save Our Spring (SOS) - is concerned that the construction of the highway extension could contaminate a source of village drinking water - the popular spring on Valley Drive. …The group wants a more thorough study and it has more than 2,000 signatures on a petition to back their demand. …SOS has conducted a letter-writing campaign and has met with key political figures, including Pontiac MP Lawrence Cannon and Gatineau MNA Stephanie Vallee, but there has been no action." THE CANADIAN ENVIRONMENTAL ASSESSMENT ACT The Montreal Gazette also notes that a mandatory review of the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act that was to be completed by Parliament this year, "but has not even begun detailed analysis." The Globe and Mail reported on March 31 that, “The federal Conservatives are giving Environment Minister Jim Prentice clear legal authority to avoid ordering full assessments of environmentally controversial projects, such as major mines and oil sands operations, according to a provision contained in the bill implementing details of the government’s new budget. The new provisions weren’t publicly announced at the time the budget was unveiled earlier in March, and only came to light after the release of the bill implementing financial aspects of the government new economic measures. Federal environmental assessments are usually applied to big and controversial industrial projects, such as pipelines, mines, and marine terminals. They’re typically ordered in cases where a project might harm fish habitat or have other impacts on wildlife. The key provisions of the legislation will give Mr. Prentice the power to order reviews of only small aspects of potentially damaging projects, and not the entire undertakings, as is now usually the case.” The Globe and Mail had also reported on March 14 that, “A leaked government document outlining the proposed changes to the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act indicates Environment Minister Jim Prentice has asked for a bill ‘overhauling’ the legislation as soon as possible. Under the new system, the government should ‘expect to capture 200-300 projects per year,’ the document states. That would represent a more than 95 per cent drop from the roughly 6,000 federal environmental assessments that currently take place each year.” And as we noted in our budget day analysis on March 5, “The Harper government wants to support (’global investment’ in ‘our abundant energy potential’) by accelerating ‘regulatory reviews of major energy projects’, like the environmentally-destructive projects in the tar sands. It says ‘responsibility for conducting environmental assessments for energy projects will be delegated from the Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency to the National Energy Board and the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission for projects falling under their respective areas of expertise.’" TWO ADDITIONAL AREAS OF CONCERN The Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission is presently in the process of deciding on whether Bruce Power will be allowed to ship radioactive steam generators from Kincardine to Sweden and back. A decision is expected from the CNSC in mid to late-December. More on that at http://www.canadians.org/campaignblog/?p=4770. And in late-May, Toronto Star columnist Thomas Walkom wrote, “Until the Gulf spill occurred, Ottawa’s National Energy Board appeared poised to give Arctic drillers - including BP - an exemption from crucial environmental safety rules, simply because they found them inconvenient. Canada’s federal government is quietly pushing ahead with plans to give the oil industry a double boost - first by giving the more pliant NEB sole responsibility for the environmental assessment of Arctic oil proposals; second by letting the cabinet exempt some projects from scrutiny altogether. …The politicians and their oil friends calculate - probably correctly - that a year from now the Gulf spill will be forgotten, the media will again be focused on Tiger Woods’ sex life and few will be paying attention to who regulates what in the Beaufort Sea.”

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