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Big project watchdog too lax, audit says

Environmental Assessment Office failing to watch for harm: report

B.C.’s Environmental Assessment Office is failing to adequately monitor major projects such as mines, power plants and tourist resorts, says B.C. auditor general John Doyle.

In a highly critical report, released Thursday, Doyle said the EAO, which is supposed to provide oversight of major projects, cannot assure the public that it is guarding against harmful environmental impacts from projects that have been approved.

When an environmental assessment certificate is issued, the conditions should be measurable and enforceable, allowing staff to monitor the project for compliance, Doyle said.

“Because this does not happen consistently, the EAO cannot assure British Columbians that the conditions and commitments stated in the environmental assessment certificate are being met,” he said.

“Adequate monitoring and enforcement of certified projects is not occurring and follow-up evaluations are not being conducted. We also found that information currently being provided to the public is not sufficient to ensure accountability.”

The audit found that most companies had little, if any communication with the EAO once a certificate was issued.

The report made six recommendations to improve the system, including ensuring commitments are clearly set out and enforceable, development of a compliance and enforcement program, evaluations to determine whether potential adverse effects are being avoided or mitigated, and improved accountability.

All recommendations were accepted by the government and some improvements have already been made, Doyle said.

“I am encouraged that, during the course of our audit, the EAO introduced some key measures to address some of the noted deficiencies,” he said.

NDP environment critic Rob Fleming said the lack of oversight is alarming.

Staff cuts, deregulation and government’s ideological reliance on self-reporting without inspections have left the environment without protection, Fleming said.

“Standards are utterly meaningless without monitoring and enforcement,” he said.

Fleming also finds it alarming that the EAO does not formally track or pursue complaints about the effect projects are having on the environment.

“They are failing to listen when residents, communities and First Nations raise concerns about these projects,” he said.

Sierra Club B.C. executive director George Heyman called for an EAO overhaul. “We’ve been worried for a long time about the lack of environmental oversight in this province. This report confirms that the situation is worse than we suspected.”

Among projects on Vancouver Island approved by the EAO since 1995 are Cape Scott Wind Farm and Holberg Wind Energy, Chemainus Wells Water Supply bringing a new water supply to North Cowichan, Elk Falls Cogeneration near Campbell River, Orca Sand and Gravel near Port McNeil, Royal Bay evaluation in Colwood, Port Alberni Cogeneration and a 1995 salmon aquaculture review in Broughton Archipelago.

The controversial Raven Underground Coal Project near Fanny Bay is undergoing a joint provincial and federal environmental assessment.

Since 1995, the EAO, with 55 staff and a budget of $8.75 million, has assessed 219 projects. Of those, 115 have been approved, 32 are under review and one – a proposed resort community near Whistler – has been refused. The remainder were withdrawn, are temporarily inactive or an assessment was deemed unnecessary.

B.C. Environment Minister Terry Lake’s office said he plans to meet with Doyle before commenting.