After harsh criticism from B.C.’s auditor general, the province has moved to strengthen its environmental monitoring, Environment Minister Terry Lake told a law conference at TRU on Friday.
“We’re trying to set the bar pretty darned high so we can tell the people of British Columbia that we’ve kept their interests in mind,” Lake said to a group comprised mostly of law students from Kamloops and Victoria.
Two years ago, Auditor General John Doyle slammed the environmental assessment office, which falls under Lake’s authority, for inadequate enforcement and poor follow-up. Just last month, Doyle tabled a report critical of the province’s efforts in preserving biodiversity and species at risk, particularly through habitat protection.
Lake said that measures adopted since the 2011 report are designed to ensure that conditions within environmental certificates issued by the province are measurable and enforceable.
“Now that assessment and management of conditions occurs throughout the whole process,” he said.
Although there are only two officers dedicated to compliance and enforcement within the environmental assessment office, other staff hold the same powers, he noted.
There have been 17 site inspections of projects so far in 2013 compared with 11 in all of 2012, he added.
“We’ve empowered people to do more. We’ve really tried hard and I’ve made it a personal challenge of mine to improve the process and improve the communications,” he said.
Lake pointed to a surge in resource activity in B.C. In the last four months, seven more major projects have entered the environmental assessment process and 28 more are expected in the near future.
To address that upswing, $2 million in contingency funds have been allocated for the office this year and its staffing has been increased.
The environmental assessment process itself is a rigorous one designed to identify potentially adverse effects, including cumulative effects over time, he said.
Once the process is complete, working group reports got to the environmental assessment director, whose directives then go to the cabinet ministers involved. The directives are not necessarily taken, though, and may be considered with later submissions.
If issued, environmental certificates render conditional, not absolute approval to projects, he stressed. A northeastern coal mine application was recently denied for the protection of caribou habitat, he said.
When it comes to monitoring compliance, government will respond according to circumstances, he said.
“If it’s major infraction of the environmental certificate, we will put a stop-work order on them and work will come to a halt.”
Steen Blechinberg, a Kamloops Crown prosecutor specializing in environmental offences, later told the group that an era of environmental prosecution that began in B.C. in the 1980s has since fallen by the wayside.
He said the courts give higher priority to criminal cases than environmental ones, which get pushed aside. He also noted that the weakening of the federal Fisheries Act has removed what was once the most powerful tool in the legal arsenal for protecting the environment.
Yet environmental prosecution can be effective, he said.
“Deterrence by prosecution really does work. It’s not even the fines sometimes. It’s the fact that they have to go to court and it’s not good for them.”