There won’t likely won’t be any government-sanctioned environmental assessment of the Cowichan estuary any time soon.
A joint statement on the issue from the Ministry of Environment and Climate Change Strategy and the Ministry of Forests, Lands, Natural Resource Operations and Rural Development said that after reviewing all the pertinent information, “there was felt to be no need for a further environmental impact assessment at this time”.
The statement from the ministries is related to a controversial rezoning application on Crown land in Cowichan Bay that was made more than two years ago.
Western Stevedoring, which controls a number of Crown leases on properties where the Westcan Terminal is situated, said at the time that its main purpose in making the rezoning application to the Cowichan Valley Regional District is to amend the current zoning to allow its tenant, Pacific Industrial Marine, to continue the operation that the company has had in place for years at the site.
At a crowded and emotional public hearing on the issue that was held by the CVRD in March, dozens of people opposed to the rezoning application demanded that an independent environmental assessment be conducted of the estuary before any final decisions were made.
The Municipality of North Cowichan also made the same request.
Members of the Cowichan Estuary Restoration & Conservation Association and other environmental groups fear that if the rezoning is approved, the doors could soon be wide open to a lot more heavy manufacturing and its related pollution in Cowichan Bay, which they say could play havoc with its fragile ecosystem.
The Cowichan estuary is managed under the Cowichan Estuary Environmental Management Plan.
The CEEMP was created in 1987 and is formally under the auspices of the Ministry of Environment and Climate Change Strategy.
The Minister of Environment is the formal decision maker, but under the current government structure, implementing the plan is led by the Ministry of Forests, Lands, Natural Resource Operations and Rural Development.
“The plan provides for environmental impact assessments in the Cowichan estuary plan area when a proposed new land use exhibits potential for significant environmental impacts, or if the proposed land use does not conform to the area designations in the plan,” the joint statement from the ministries said.
“If no significant environmental impacts are expected, there is an opportunity for the chairperson of the Cowichan Estuary Environmental Management Committee to make the decision.”
The statement points out that the proposed rezoning was brought forward by CVRD staff and reviewed by the Cowichan Estuary Environmental Management Committee.
The committee includes staff from a multitude of agencies and jurisdictions, including the province, Cowichan Tribes, CVRD staff who abstained from the decision as the re-zoning is under their purview, and representatives from Municipality of North Cowichan.
A meeting of the committee was held on the rezoning issue on April 10, 2018, and received input from the public, local government, local environment groups, local business, the Duncan Cowichan Chamber of Commerce and unionized employees working in the businesses already on-site.
“The committee reviewed all of the available information provided, a number of relevant studies on fish population health and other environmental values, and public inputs and came to the conclusion that there was no evident significant environmental impacts associated with the proposed rezoning,” the statement said.
“Therefore, there was felt to be no need for a further environmental impact assessment at that time.”
Ed Mankelow, a past president of the BC Wildlife Federation who has worked to protect the Cowichan estuary for decades, said he thinks it’s “ridiculous” for the government not to have a thorough environmental assessment of the estuary conducted as part of the rezoning application process.
“What’s lacking in B.C. is that there is no follow through to ensure all the regulations are adhered to,” he said.
“If there is no environmental assessment of the estuary, then industrial development should be stopped there.”
The statement from the ministries went on to say that the B.C. Environmental Assessment Office assesses major projects that have the potential for significant adverse environmental, social, health, economic or heritage effects.
It said the EAO’s Reviewable Projects Regulation sets out the criteria or thresholds required for a project or modification to an existing project to be assessed by the EAO.
“Project proponents are responsible for making their own determination as to whether or not their proposed project falls within the thresholds set out in the regulation,” the statement said.
“Other provincial statutes and local government regulations may set out additional requirements that apply to the proposed project.”