Environment Canada confused by cuts, union letter says

Published by Postmedia News on Thursday Jun 21, 2012

OTTAWA – Senior management at Environment Canada offered “blank looks” and expressed confusion after being told that cuts to a team of pollution-monitoring scientists would compromise the department’s enforcement capabilities and the credibility of its international reports, says the president of the union that represents environment employees.

Environment Minister Peter Kent, who was in Rio de Janeiro Thursday for the United Nations conference on sustainable development, was not available for comment but indicated through a spokesman that his department is still taking a scientific approach to monitoring pollution.

Kent’s office did not address specific concerns raised in the letter sent by the Union of Environment Workers. The letter said that a soon-to-be-dismantled team of scientists had audited and validated data used in recent government inventory reports on greenhouse gas emissions and indicators of environmental sustainability in Canada.

“Again it seems that your government is not concerned with obtaining the facts and is ignoring the environmental impacts in lieu of paving the way for industry to self-regulate and manage its environmental affairs,” wrote Todd Panas, president of the union, in the letter sent to Kent on May 22.

Panas said Environment Canada officials appeared to be caught off guard when members of the team of smokestack pollution monitoring specialists _ the team being dismantled _ told the department’s management in a meeting that they were doing field work and co-operating with enforcement officers to crack down on pollution.

“When queried (Environment Canada) officials responded with blank looks and provided differing points of view,” Panas wrote in the letter. “They seemed to be somewhat disconnected from any knowledge of what vital role this section provides in maintaining a safe environment for all Canadians.”

Kent’s office has suggested that the unit “is not responsible for emissions monitoring,” which appears to contradict a description of the team on Environment Canada’s own website. Kent has also suggested that the government could replace the unit of seven specialists and save about $718,000 per year by relying on outside sources of information such as the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

The government has estimated it would need to spend about $115,000 per year on emissions research data that would no longer be compiled in-house, and that it could then shift resources with savings to improve scientific monitoring of environmental impacts of the oilsands industry.

Independent scientists such as Tom Duck, a professor of atmospheric science from Dalhousie University, and Bill Van Heyst, an engineering professor specializing in air quality at the University of Guelph, have suggested that dismantling the team of specialists could threaten the quality of data collected by Environment Canada and the health of Canadians.

Meanwhile, the department’s top bureaucrat, deputy minister Paul Boothe, announced his retirement this week, following a “challenging” two years on the job that concluded with major proposed changes to Canada`s environmental laws and restructuring within Environment Canada.

Boothe, who has been overseeing the ongoing transformation of Environment Canada since July 2010, told the department in an email Tuesday that he would retire from the public service at the end of July, after serving in various senior positions in government for over eight years.

“The past two years have been challenging for Environment Canada,” said Boothe. “However, I am confident that, largely as a result of your dedication and determination, we will come through this period a strong and united force for a clean, safe, and sustainable environment.”

Boothe said in his email that his experience was rewarding but also “very demanding” and requiring “sacrifices, not just of me, but also of my family.”

He said it was now time for him to spend more time with his family and “pursue a number of interests I have postponed in order to give all my energy to Environment Canada.”

An Environment Canada spokesman said Boothe would indicate his future plans in the coming weeks.

NDP deputy leader and environment critic Megan Leslie praised Boothe for his service and agreed with his assessment about the recent difficult period at the department as the government overhauls laws governing environmental reviews of industrial development and protection of species at risk, and while the department is in the midst of restructuring.

“The next few years are going to be even more so, given the extensive cuts to the department announced in this budget, especially to scientific capacity,” Leslie said. “I’ll be watching with interest who the prime minister appoints as his replacement, and would urge him to appoint someone with a strong scientific and environmental background so they can prioritize the use of the meagre resources left to the department in the most strategic and effective way to deliver on the department’s mandate.”


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