Professional reliance at work in Shawnigan

The Environmental Appeal Board does not appear to be an adequate mechanism and neither does APEG.

The professional reliance model employed by the provincial government outsources assessments of the environmental merits of development proposals to “qualified environmental professionals” (QEPs).

In conducting their activities on behalf of the public interest, as well as the private interests by whom they are actually employed, QEPs are expected to adhere to standards of professional competence, independence and reliance on science. They are further expected to adhere to the codes of ethics and disciplinary oversight of their relevant professional bodies. The system was set up by the provincial government, ostensibly to reduce the cost of government and therefore the internal oversight mechanisms were downsized or eliminated.

So, what happened under this regime in Shawnigan? The Statutory Decision Maker (SDM), delegated to conduct the project appraisal and approval process, followed the protocols required under the Environmental Management Act but did not conduct due diligence about the proponent and thus did not discover the nature of the business relationship between the proponent and its engineers.

The Ministries of Environment and Mines, the main issuers of the necessary permits for the contaminated soil landfill, also did not discover the relationship. The Environmental Appeal Board (EAB), in restricting itself only to testimony at its permit appeal hearing, did not call the engineering firm to testify and undergo cross examination, so it too failed to discover the relationship.

The government lawyers defending the SDM at the EAB hearing also did not discover the status of the proponent partners.

The Minister of Environment did not require any due diligence that would examine the suitability of the proponent and its partners. At no time did any government body provide an audit or vetting procedure to determine the business model of the proponent and its partners or adherence to the professional reliance system in practice. Further, the Association of Professional Engineers and Geoscientists, APEG, the relevant professional association, has remained publicly silent on what would appear to be a violation of its code of ethics as made clear in the determination by Justice Sewell of the Supreme Court.

How come everybody in the professional reliance system, so completely dependent on competence, independence and professional association scrutiny, had in the end to rely on a brown paper envelope pushed under the door to surface a miscarriage of the system? How come it took over $2 million of donated and community tax money to get this issue addressed by adversarial proceedings in the courts? And, how come the Minister of Environment keeps insisting that the assessment, issuance and monitoring of the permit performance of the proponents on the Shawnigan landfill site is only a matter of objective science conducted by her technical staff?

Should we not be asking the critical system question? Aside from the mistake in allowing a community watershed site for a contaminated soil landfill in the first place, government is now focusing exclusively on the details of the landfill permit and operator compliance. This, though greatly belated, may now be necessary but it is not sufficient. The province is not dealing with the much more important issue of the integrity of the professional reliance model of environmental governance as the guardian of the public interest. At the very least the Shawnigan experience demonstrates the need for a rigorous, independent and publicly reporting audit mechanism to keep the system functioning in any way that would live up to its billing.

The Environmental Appeal Board does not appear to be an adequate mechanism and neither does APEG. As a result, the public interest is not being effectively served and responsible professionals are left vulnerable to distrust. This matters to the whole province.

Dr. Bruce Fraser

Past Area Director for Shawnigan Lake

Past Chair, Forest Practices Board of BC