Changes to federal legislation eliminated the need for low-level environmental assessments on 2,970 projects across Canada, 16 of them in the South Okanagan.
Those cancelled assessments were to be screenings, the most basic level of federal review and can consist of a simple scan of project information to assess environmental risks.
While the Conservative government says those cancellations will free up officials to focus on big projects, environmentalists fear it will result in a lower standard of protection.
The omnibus budget bill the Conservatives sent this spring to Parliament contained wide-reaching legislative amendments, including repeal and replacement of the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act.
Among the changes to the CEAA was a shift away from a trigger approach to determine what projects require an assessment, like involvement of a federal agency, to a designated project list that will now spell out which types of projects, like mines, require a review.
That list is based on one contained in the old act and informal consultations on an updated version were held over the summer with unspecified stakeholders, said Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency spokesperson Isabelle Perrault.
The new act also added timelines and stronger enforcement measures to the process, but equally important is the redeployment of resources, said Okanagan-Coquihalla MP Dan Albas.
“So instead of focusing on these projects that have little chance of impacting the environment, the government has decided to focus federal environmental assessment efforts on major projects that have a greater chance of affecting the environment,” he explained.
The Conservative MP said the change was based on recommendations put forth in 2009 by federal environment commissioner Scott Vaughan. However, Vaughan only recommended the CEAA review the effectiveness of its screenings, and that review hasn’t yet been completed.
Vaughan did, however, recommend a more consistent enforcement process, which Albas said will be made possible through the new legislation and increased funding to the CEAA.
Albas said the government has tried to strike a balance between spurring economic growth and protecting the environment.
“I think it’s a stronger system moving forward, because we’re taking into consideration the realities on the ground,” Albas said.
Of the 16 screenings that were cancelled in the South Okanagan, 11 were located on the Penticton Indian Reserve and were originally triggered because of Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada involvement.
Five of those projects call for remediation of former Crown land the band is trying to have added to its reserve, while the remainder include residential developments, a fish hatchery and a winery.
PIB lands manager Joan Phillip noted that any development on the reserve will still require a traditional ecological knowledge assessment, which is focused on protection of the environment and indigenous species.
Phillip, also a band councillor, said the PIB “would still like to maintain that high standard that was set by Canada before changing the goal posts, so to speak.”
Off-reserve, the most significant South Okanagan project that had its screening cancelled is the planned widening of a 1.5-kilometre stretch of Eastside Road along Skaha Lake.
The plan calls for adding fill to expand the road shoulder along a one-kilometre stretch of lakeshore. That has the potential to harm fish or fish habitat, which caused the Department of Fisheries and Oceans to flag the project for a federal assessment.
B.C. Transportation Ministry spokesperson Kate Trotter said via email that work is underway to satisfy requirements imposed by both the DFO and the B.C. Environment Ministry to address environmental concerns.
Formal approval is expected “shortly” and “information about the start date for the work will be available soon,” said Trotter, who did not respond to a follow-up request for more specific timelines.
The B.C. Environmental Assessment Office issued a statement in August that noted of the 492 screenings that were cancelled here, 80 per cent were triggered by non-environmental factors, and none met the threshold for a provincial review. Twenty other federal screenings in B.C. will still go ahead.
Joe Foy, national campaign director for the Canadian Wilderness Committee, said weakened federal environmental legislation will result in an mishmash of inconsistent regulations.
“There may be, and probably are… provincial, municipal and First Nations jurisdictions that will step up to the plate and do an excellent job. But there will be others that don’t. So we end up with a very unpredictable and divided patchwork,” Foy said.
Combined with “sweeping changes” to the Fisheries Act, “and notices of layoff to thousands of federal government employees,” Foy continued, “it essentially shoots the lights out and makes it difficult for citizens to know what damages may occur with various projects.”
Some Of The Local Projects That No Longer Require Screenings Due To Recent Changes To The Canadian Environmental Assessment Act
What: Installation of 585 metres of stormwater diversion works to manage flows from Prairie Creek. Materials to be installed include storm sewer and riprap bank armouring to reduce flood threat to nearby homes and Giant’s Head Elementary School.
Assessment trigger: Two federal bodies, including Infrastructure Canada, are considering providing funding to the project.
Where: Dominion Radio Astrophysical Observatory near Okanagan Falls
What: UBC has proposed to build a new radio telescope at the site to help it conduct a census of the early universe. The telescope would consist of two reflectors plus a control hut, fencing and cables, and the total project area would be about 3,000 square metres.
Assessment trigger: The National Research Council of Canada is named as the project proponent and is considering providing funding.
Where: Penticton Indian Reserve 1
What: The Okanagan Nation Alliance has proposed to build a fish hatchery as part of its ongoing effort to reintroduce sockeye salmon to Skaha Lake. The plan calls for a 3,400-square-metre facility on the reserve north of Green Mountain Road and would include a 40,000-litre sewage holding tank, an on-site well and a 20,000-litre water storage tank, plus office space and 40-stall parking area.
Assessment trigger: Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada is named as the project proponent.
Where: Unoccupied federal land east of Channel Parkway near the end of Yorkton Avenue in Penticton.
What: Public Works and Government Services Canada is proposing to install a fence around a 1.4-hectare parcel of Okanagan River diversion property. The government is considering the sale of the land and wishes to build a fence to prevent trespassing and illegal dumping
Assessment trigger: PWGSC is named as the project proponent.
SOURCE: Canadian Environmental Assessment Registry