Environmental Regulation and Resource Development in British Columbia

This past week, Evidence for Democracy (E4D) released a report on the state of government research capacity and oversight in British Columbia. The results weren’t pretty. Government scientists feel that they don’t have enough resources to fulfill their mandates, with negative impacts on environmental regulation. Because of budget shortfalls, they increasingly rely on external professionals, which compromises their ability to use the best available science in decision-making. Half of government scientists feel that political interference is compromising their ability to develop laws and policies.

These issues are having impacts across the province, with the resulting environmental damage more likely to be discovered and reported by ordinary British Columbians than by government law enforcement or oversight. There are many on-the-ground examples from the past year that reveal the scope of the problem and its impacts on local communities and the environment. In some cases, locals have gone to the federal government to ensure that environmental regulations are upheld.

The findings of the E4D report echo the results of a recent Forest Practices Board (FPB) report, which said that BC’s Ministry of Forests is failing to enforce their own forestry laws. In terms of visual quality objectives alone (i.e., maintaining the scenery), the Board found at least four instances since 2014 where logging companies were in violation of the rules. As early as 2015, the FPB was reporting that district managers didn’t have the power to stop poor logging practices.

“On a routine basis, district forest managers raise red flags over forestry practices that pose potential public safety hazards, threaten wildlife and community watersheds, and could trigger landslides, but have no authority to stop it.”

The problem stems from a 2004 decision by Gordon Campbell’s Liberal government to switch from the Forest Practices Code to the more lenient Forest and Range Practices Act.

In January of this year, the federal government fined three logging companies on Haida Gwaii a total of $2.2 million “for 10 counts under the federal Fisheries Act related to logging practices resulting in “complete devastation” and “wanton disregard” for fish habitat.” A federal fisheries biologist said it would take “centuries” for the site to recover. These companies failed to conduct their logging operations within the legal bounds of their agreements with the provincial government. Not only that, but it was a civilian who contacted the government about the damage and triggered a federal investigation – not a provincial government employee providing project oversight.

Forestry practices have also been questioned recently in southeastern BC, near Wells Gray Park, where the provincial government has approved logging in the habitat of the southern mountain caribou. Once again, it’s local residents who are sounding the alarm – and again they’re taking their concerns to the federal government. The southern mountain caribou have been designated as ‘endangered’ under the federal Species At Risk Act, which requires that they have sufficient habitat for species recovery. The cutblocks the BC government has approved will fragment that habitat, with additional negative impacts on caribou. Though BC government scientists claim the herd is at risk from predation by wolves, which they’ve been culling in an attempt to save the caribou, it’s ultimately the linear features created by logging and other resource activities that give wolves access to the caribou herds.

Meanwhile, in Shawnigan Lake on Vancouver Island, residents have been fighting a contaminated soil dump since 2013 over its potential to contaminate Shawnigan Lake via Shawnigan Creek. As with the logging on Haida Gwaii, the company running the soil dump signed agreements with the provincial government outlining the measures it would take to safeguard the environment and prevent leaching of contaminants out of the dumped soil and into the surrounding environment. However, ongoing observation of the site by local residents – not regular inspection by government staff – revealed that the planned environmental measures weren’t actually working, and contaminated water was leaving the site. There was also the question of potential collusion between the independent company tasked with determining the environmental impact of the dump (Active Earth Engineering), and the company running that dump (South Island Aggregates). After several years of court cases, public demonstrations, and private citizens monitoring the malfunctioning of contaminant ponds, the dump permit was finally pulled last month. Now the question is how to remediate the site.

Like the people of Shawnigan Lake, residents of the North Okanagan community of Spallumcheen also have concerns about their water that weren’t being adequately addressed by the BC government. They’ve been under a water quality advisory since 2014 because their aquifer is contaminated with nitrates. Even though it was clear that the nitrates were coming from liquid manure spreading on a dairy farm upstream, the BC government continued to issue permits approving manure spreading. Finally, last year the government conceded that the manure spreading was the culprit, and issued an abatement order to the dairy farm. However, they’ve requested the diary farm provide a provincially-approved plan by a ‘qualified professional’ – not by government scientists themselves.

Finally, in northeastern BC’s Peace Country, BC Hydro’s Site C Dam is the region’s largest resource development. Many questions have been raised over whether we actually need the electricity the dam will provide, the cost to taxpayers of dam construction, the flooding of valuable farmland and First Nations land, and the associated environmental impacts. As Christy Clark’s Liberal government presses ahead with getting dam construction ‘past the point of no return,’ BC Hydro is being fined for various sediment issues at their construction site, which are affecting water quality and fish habitat. In this case, the damage was observed by the project’s Independent Environmental Monitor, which is a sign of things working as they should. But BC Hydro ignored repeated warnings, which required meetings with government staff to resolve the problems.

Given the lack of government investment in science and environmental oversight exposed by the E4D report, it’s obvious that the BC Liberals – first under Gordon Campbell and now under Christy Clark – are more interested in resource development than environmental protection. While development is important for economic reasons, we need to balance it with responsible environmental management – and we need to give our provincial employees the support and resources they need to do their jobs.

The provincial election is coming up on May 9th. Consider this post when you mark your ballot.

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