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Environmental regulation: better than a pound of cure

August 11, 2014

A salmon caught from the Fraser River after the Mt. Polley tailings pond spill. Xaxli'p, Sek'wel'was & Tsk'way'laxw First Nations have closed all fishing activities due to contaminated fish. Photo credit: Turner LeBourdais.

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Click here to go directly to our survey on the need for strong federal environmental laws.

‘Streamlining environmental regulatory review’ and ‘reducing the regulatory burden on industry’ are among the hottest buzzwords from the federal and BC provincial governments. 

As the Mt. Polley Mine tailings lake breach that occurred on Monday, August 4 demonstrates, however, deregulation of industrial activities that impact the environment is a gamble that can have devastating outcomes for local communities and the environment.

The magnitude of the impacts of the Mt. Polley breach are still being assessed and it could be years before they are fully understood. What is immediately certain is that there will be profound and long-lasting effects on local, regional and provincial economies, on livelihoods and communities, on fish, wildlife and ecosystems, and on British Columbians’ trust in regulators.

British Columbia has an economy, not to mention hundreds of communities, that depend on a healthy environment. It is rich in natural resources like fish, water and forests, which provide billions of dollars in direct and indirect economic benefits to its citizens.

Project proposals abound in BC, including for LNG facilities, pipelines, fish farms and mines. Concerned citizens, local governments, environmental groups and First Nations who wish to have a say in these projects face increasing pressure to juggle multiple proposals amid constraints on their ability to participate. Last week the proposed KSM copper and gold mine received a green light from provincial regulators and now awaits federal approval. KSM would store 63 million cubic meters of tailings water, over a dozen times more than the slurry that spewed out from Mt. Polley.

Risk is inherent in activities that impact the environment. From the threat of a dam breach, to an inevitable oil tanker spill, to cumulative contamination of wild salmon by fish farm pesticides, the environmental and economic costs of these impacts are ultimately borne by citizens, and in particular by the people who live and work in nearby communities.

To optimize the benefits of projects and minimize their risks, governments need strong environmental laws, combined with robust information and sufficient monitoring and staffing to ensure compliance. Canadians have a legitimate expectation that when government agencies approve projects like mines, dams, pipelines and fish farms, they will safeguard key environmental, economic, social, heritage, cultural and health values, and ensure adverse impacts are avoided or mitigated.

Despite this obligation, however, the federal government has been steadily divesting itself of responsibility for reducing the risks of those projects to Canadians.

In 2012, it enacted two omnibus budget bills that repealed and amended several of Canada’s oldest and strongest environmental laws. It watered down the Fisheries Act, significantly weakening protection of fish habitat and outright eliminating protection for some fish, including species at risk.

It also replaced Canada’s environmental assessment law with a new, weaker law that resulted in the cancellation of nearly 3,000 environmental reviews across the country. Projects that no longer require federal review include two open pit coal mines near Elkford and Sparwood, BC, an LNG facility near Kitimat, a mine extension in New Brunswick, and, somewhat ominously in the present context, a tailings pond and treatment facility, and expansions of two uranium tailings ponds at McLean Lake and Rabbit Lake, Saskatchewan.

The rollbacks continue. Changes to the federal Navigable Waters Protection Act that were brought into force this year removed protection for over 99% of Canada’s lakes and rivers. Expected sometime this month are regulations that will make life easier for the aquaculture industry, but not for wild fish, by relaxing the regulation of the dumping of aquatic drugs and pesticides into wild fish habitat.

Touted as benefitting Canada’s economy, the federal environmental law rollbacks simply shift the load onto citizens, whose tax dollars will pay for emergency responses, cleanup costs, long-term impacts on water and fish, and related litigation and settlements. For local residents whose drinking water, recreation and livelihoods are lost or damaged, the cost is even greater.

Perhaps the most outrageous aspect of the Mt. Polley Mine tailings breach disaster is its preventability. Read our Checklist for Strong Environmental Laws for more information on what  core elements a strong environmental assessment law should contain, and visit our General Resources page for publications on the need for strong federal environmental legislation. As Mt. Polley reminds us, Canada needs strong federal environmental laws to protect our communities, the environment and our economy from the risk of harm.

What do you think of the Mt. Polley Mine disaster? Take our brief, three-question survey on the need for strong federal environmental laws and tell us about activities near where you live that put your community at risk.




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