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Environmental groups fear reviews won't be conducted at all after cuts

Aug 24 2012

Fears are growing that developments such as independent power projects, shellfish farms on beaches and marina expansions are likely to be built without oversight as the federal government cuts back on environmental assessments.

Changes to the federal Environmental Assessment Act are halting more than 500 B.C. assessments in their tracks and many future projects will no longer meet the criteria for assessments.

Although a scathing report last year by Auditor General John Doyle prompted changes to the B.C. Environmental Assessment Office, critics say it remains woefully understaffed and does not have the capacity to adequately conduct more assessments.

"The province has cut and gutted the Ministry of Environment right down to the bone," said John Werring, David Suzuki Foundation aquatic habitat specialist.

"They don't have the capacity or resources, so a lot of these projects will just slip through the cracks."

Ecojustice, on behalf of the Suzuki Foundation and Watershed Watch Salmon Society, has asked B.C.

Supreme Court for a judicial review of the province's decision not to conduct an environmental review of a hydro power project near McBride.

The case illustrates problems that are now likely to become more common, Werring said.

The Holmes River run-ofriver power project has 10 units on the same watershed producing a total of 85 megawatts. But because each unit produces less than 50 megawatts, an environmental assessment is not required.

Ecojustice lawyer Tim Leadem said the case shows proponents are already finding ways to avoid assessments - even though the reviews are usually a way to make a project better for both the environment and the company

"The environmental assessment process involves listening to experts and usually points out defects in the project so that, over time, the project will be sustainable and you don't have to go back and remediate problems," Leadem said.

Josh Paterson, West Coast Environmental Law staff lawyer, said one of the concerns is the cumulative impact of smaller developments that aren't subjected to an assessment.

"There could be a significant effect with multiple projects in a small area like Vancouver Island," he said.

"The whole reason for an environmental assessment is to be able to find out how all those things interact."

The changes could be even more devastating when combined with federal cuts to other environmental protections such as the Fisheries Act, Paterson said.

Assessments that have been abandoned on Vancouver Island include high-profile projects such as the John Hart Generating Station replacement near Campbell River, Craigflower Bridge and Victoria International Marina.

Among the approximately 150 other abandoned Vancouver Island assessments are expansion of Van Isle Marina in Sidney; remediation of contaminated soil on Esquimalt Indian reserve; Halalt First Nation waterworks project; a multitude of Department of National Defence projects including a forward operating base simulator at Rocky Point and construction of a sea container facility in Colwood; construction of the Port Alice public marina; and Cowichan Lake waterfront walkway. jlavoie@timescolonist.com

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