Water pollution law meant to assist oilsands: Liberal MP

Published by Postmedia News on Thursday July 5, 2012

OTTAWA – New laws offering the government more tools to “authorize” water pollution appear to be designed to remove obstacles for expansion of Canada`s oilpatch, says a Liberal MP from Montreal who spearheaded a parliamentary investigation into the environmental footprint of the oilsands.

“I just found it curious that they’re trying to hide their motive,” said Francis Scarpaleggia, the Liberal water critic. “This is all being done for the oilsands. It’s not being done for the pulp and paper industry. They have their house in order.”

Scarpaleggia made the comments in response to recent Postmedia News reports about a letter signed by Fisheries and Oceans Minister Keith Ashfield that explained the government was amending the Canada`s Fisheries Act, previously considered to be the country’s strongest environmental protection law, in order to make it easier to “authorize” water pollution.

“There are currently few tools to authorize pollution other than by detailed regulations,” wrote Ashfield in the letter that was sent to Union of Environment Workers president Todd Panas on June 13. “For example, the amended Fisheries Act will provide flexibility and establish new tools to authorize deposits of deleterious substances.”

When asked to explain the comments last week, Ashfield’s department referred the questions to Environment Canada, which referred the matter on Thursday back to the fisheries department.

No one in government was immediately able to provide further explanations about the legislation that was adopted by Parliament before the Canada Day weekend, but a spokesman for the main industry lobby group, the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers, said the new laws do not weaken any existing environmental standards.

“CAPP supports regulatory streamlining and clarity for all stakeholders,” said Greg Stringham, a vice-president of marketing and oilsands for the association, in a statement sent to Postmedia News. “The changes in process do not change the environmental standards and regulations that must be met for oilsands development.”

Stringham also said the reforms would generate more jobs and a stronger Canadian economy while “ensuring continued environmental performance.” He explained it would improve the efficiency of the decision making progress while protecting regulatory scrutiny expected by the public.

Internal briefing notes, prepared for former federal environment minister Jim Prentice and released through access to information legislation, indicated in June 2010 that Environment Canada enforcement officers were using provisions of the Fisheries Act, subsequently modified under the federal government’s 2012 budget legislation, to review groundwater monitoring data and ensure that oilsands operations were in compliance with laws protecting water quality.

Scarpaleggia said that some mining companies are using existing provisions of legislation that allow the federal government to authorize them to dump tailings waste into lakes or other bodies of water with fish, when they take other steps to mitigate the damage.

But he said that the problem is more complicated to solve for oilsands companies following research led by University of Alberta scientist, David Schindler, who found that air pollution from oilsands operations were polluting water in a peer-reviewed study that examined snow samples.

Environment Canada, in partnership with the Alberta government, responded with a new monitoring plan of oilsands impacts on air, water and wildlife that is expected to cost about $50 million per year. The industry has previously agreed to cover the costs of the new monitoring, setting a goal of finalizing the funding arrangement by the end of June, but the sides are still trying to finalize the deal.

The new environmental legislation adopted this year allows the environment minister to introduce new regulations to authorize pollution and enter into agreements with provincial governments to monitor bodies of water without current levels of federal oversight. Other changes weaken some existing protection of habitat for endangered species, while restricting the ability of some Canadians to participate in environmental reviews of proposed projects .

Scarpaleggia also questioned whether the government could adequately monitor impacts of air pollution on water after millions of dollars worth of cuts to scientific monitoring and research, including the dismantling a unit of smokestack pollution specialists with expertise in measuring harmful emissions.

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