Much of B.C.’s environmental deregulation goes too far in handing over matters of public interest to those employed by industry, says a University of Victoria Environmental Law Centre study.
The shift to so-called professional reliance in the past decade has put more decision making and responsibility into the hands of professionals such as consulting engineers, and allowed the B.C. government to reduce staffing.
This reliance on professionals has been raised as a concern in Imperial Metals’ Mount Polley mine tailings dam failure last summer, but also in areas such as forestry.
“There are certain roles that government just has to maintain as the trustee of Crown land. So, I think it’s gone too far in taking away that essential government role,” said report author Mark Haddock, a UVic law instructor.
Haddock examined 27 regulatory areas in which professional reliance plays a role, including landfills, agricultural waste, water wells and residential sewage systems. He analyzed legislation and also conducted interviews with government staff and professionals.
The 150-page study concluded some regulatory systems are well-structured, such as that for contaminated sites. It has clear professional and competency requirements, retains decision-making for government and includes audits of decisions.
But others, including the regulatory system for forestry, are “unduly loose” and fail to address concerns such as ensuring proper tree and foliage buffers between water bodies and logged areas, a concern also raised earlier by the B.C. Ombudsperson.
The UVic report said the regulatory system that oversees mining in B.C. has broad discretionary powers that retain a significant degree of government authority.
However, the system also relies on the expertise and diligence of professional engineers to inspect and report on tailings dam safety issues, and it is unclear whether they have power or authority to require mining operations to make changes, noted the study.
The report says to determine whether professional reliance is effective, the system should be examined against a set of 10 criteria that include a duty by professionals to report non-compliance, government enforcement and ground rules for conflict of interest between professionals and the companies that hire them.
Haddock said tightening government’s oversight would not be complicated, and would include introducing more prescriptive standards and a mechanism to ensure companies carry out recommendations from professionals.
An engineering panel appointed by the B.C. government made such recommendations after its examination of the Mount Polley tailings dam failure, calling for the province to create more prescriptive regulations.
B.C. Forests, Lands and Natural Resources Minister Steve Thomson has said he believes professional reliance is working, but is willing to discuss concerns.
Thomson has said the government is not convinced that additional government bureaucracy is necessarily the best way to achieve better stewardship of provincial lands and environmental values.
Thomson has noted the government is working on a policy that would put a greater focus on the assessment of cumulative effects both by government resource managers and industry professionals. The policy also includes ensuring that First Nations interests are taken into consideration.
B.C. Energy and Mining Minister Bill Bennett has said there will be a review of mining regulations following the Mount Polley engineering panel report recommendations.