A geotechnical expert examines a core sample to determine underground conditions. (B.C. government)

Industry groups pan B.C.’s ‘professional reliance’ review

NDP, Greens want more control over engineering, environmental experts

Industry associations have warned that the B.C. government’s move to overhaul its environmental oversight of industrial projects is a move towards over-regulation.

Environment Minister George Heyman ordered a study last year, as required by its minority government agreement with of the B.C. Green Party, to “review and address failures in the professional reliance model in B.C. so that British Columbians’ faith in resource development can be restored.”

Professional reliance is a policy of requiring mining, forest, petroleum and other industrial companies to produce their own environmental studies on proposed projects, rather than have government experts conduct studies. Professional associations for biologists, foresters, engineers and other fields were given responsibility for codes of ethics and discipline of members.

The report by University of Victoria environmental law professor Mark Haddock recommends the province establish a new “office of professional regulation and oversight” to work independently of resource ministries. Haddock proposes new legislation to oversee professional associations, including foresters, biologists, engineers, geoscientists, agrologists and technicians.

Council of Forest Industries CEO Susan Yurkovich said the proposal “would effectively take us back 25 years” to the former NDP government’s Forest Practices Code, which proved a costly and “gridlocked regulatory scheme.” The industry is now regulated by the Forest Practices Board, which issues regular audits that show a good record of compliance, Yurkovich said.

Business Council of B.C. president Greg D’Avignon called Haddock’s report “a solution looking for a problem,” which confuses regulatory capacity in government with the role of qualified professionals who design projects and conduct environmental surveys.

“Unfortunately, this report fails to recognize that whether professionals work in the private or public sector, they are all bound by the same legal and ethical standards,” D’Avignon said.

In its submission to Haddock’s committee, AltaGas, which is building a propane export facility at Prince Rupert, warned that qualified professionals “should not be tasked with making government resource management decisions.” Government agencies should be the decision makers, said Charles Lyons, vice president for environment and safety at AltaGas.

Haddock, who has worked with the Sierra Legal Defence Fund and West Coast Environmental Law, also recommends changes to agricultural waste control, contaminated sites, hazardous waste, landfill gas management, municipal wastewater, mushroom compost facilities, meat processing, timber pricing, oil and gas roads and drilling and dam safety regulation.

RELATED: AltaGas to build B.C. propane terminal

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Releasing the report last week, Heyman said consultation would continue with professional associations, Indigenous communities, environmental groups and the business community before any legislative changes are made.

But Heyman made his view clear in an exchange with Green MLA Sonia Fursteneau in the legislature in April, when she asked about a contaminated soil site permitted in a former rock quarry near Shawnigan Lake. That permit was rescinded after it was revealed an environmental consultant had a financial stake in the project going ahead.

Heyman told the legislature that Shawnigan Lake residents “know firsthand what happens when government destroys its capacity to monitor environmental impacts, to monitor public health impacts and to protect the public interest.”

Extensive testing showed no contamination of Shawnigan Lake from the site, which had its permit cancelled in early 2017 due to the lack of a letter of credit for site safety and a closure plan required by the permit.

Furstenau argued that “projects are treated as one-offs in the application process, with little or no recognition of cumulative impacts. It is not a company’s responsibility to look at cumulative impacts or ecosystem-based management; it is the government’s.”

Critics of professional reliance point to the Mount Polley mine dam failure that spilled millions of litres of ground rock and water into Quesnel Lake in 2014. The mine received its permits and was constructed in the 1990s, years before Gordon Campbell’s B.C. Liberal government introduced the professional reliance model in 2003.

An investigation by some of North America’s top geotechnical engineers determined that the Mount Polley dam was built over a weak layer of glacial till that was not detected by drill tests done before construction. It could not have been found by surface inspections after the mine was built, and raising and filling the dam eventually triggered the collapse of one section.

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