Canadian Consulting Engineer

A Long & Winding Road

Back in 2000, the regional authority of Metro Vancouver bought a cattle ranch in Ashcroft, a small community located about 340 kilometres east of Vancouver in B. C.

March 1, 2009  By Bronwen Parsons

Back in 2000, the regional authority of Metro Vancouver bought a cattle ranch in Ashcroft, a small community located about 340 kilometres east of Vancouver in B. C.

The 4,500-hectare site was purchased with the intention of using part of it as a landfill, as a destination for Metro Vancouver’s garbage. Whether that was a sound decision or not, nine years later there is no garbage dump on the site, and Metro Vancouver has spent an estimated $12 million on the project and possible alternatives.

A good chunk of that $12 million — about one quarter — went on environmental studies. While the Ashcroft landfill is an extreme case, it’s not that unusual. These days any infrastructure project has to go through a long environmental assessment process before it can go ahead. Obtaining approvals for a project such as a major highway can take years and a seemingly endless supply of consultants’ reports. The process drains huge resources from project proponents such as municipalities — resources that in today’s economy are scarce.

Faced with the dire economic situation, Canada’s government has decided to stimulate job creation by pouring upwards of $12 billion into infrastructure projects. But in order to “get shovels in the ground” quickly, the government knows it has a problem to solve first. It must streamline and expedite the environmental assessment process. In presenting the February 2008 Budget, Finance Minister Jim Flaherty explained their dilemma: “Infrastructure approval processes are subject to duplication and inefficiencies in administration, leading to unnecessary project delays.” As a result, Flaherty said, the government wants to change the regulatory framework, “to drive efficiencies in assessing environmental and other impacts of infrastructure projects without compromising protection of the environment.”

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The Canadian Environmental Assessment Act (CEAA) applies to infrastructure projects when the federal government proposes a project, provides funding, provides land, or in some cases where a site crosses jurisdictional boundaries. In most large infrastructure projects, provincial environmental assessment regulations will also apply. Hence the government’s concern with duplication.

All signs (leaked e-mails, comments to the press) suggest that the federal government intends to solve the problem by foregoing its requirements whenever a project is already going through a provincial assessment. But is a federal retreat the answer? Environmentalists don’t think so. At Environmental Defence in Ottawa, Aeron Freedman says: “We think that’s a recipe for a race to the bottom…. We’re not satisfied with the environmental approvals process, but what we’re facing now is the prospect of that process actually being weakened significantly if the federal role is withdrawn.”

Another option for the Canadian government is to attempt to harmonize its Environmental Assessment Act with the environmental laws of different provinces. But that could be difficult because the federal and provincial legislations are very different both in their philosophies and technical approaches.

Consulting engineers deeply involved

Consulting engineers are deeply involved in helping municipalities and other clients obtain environmental approvals for infrastructure projects. The civil engineering firms who design roads, sewers, water treatment plants and other infrastructure have whole departments devoted to doing environmental studies and steering projects through these rites of passage. The work involves initial scoping, doing detailed field studies and writing the extensive reports. It can also mean liaising with government agencies and arranging consultation sessions with the public.

At McElhanney Consulting Services in Vancouver, Ross Murray is an aquatic ecologist who manages the firm’s environmental division. Murray explains how they would approach a typical new highway project. “You look at the geographical course and define the environmental values within it — the species present, their habitats, sensitive environmental features, etc. The highway is going to intersect rivers, it’s going to intersect migratory paths of animals, it’s going to cause the removal of a certain amount of flora. You are going to take what is natural habitat and pave it, so there’s going to be a strip of hard surface put through the middle of what would have been forest or prairie, or whatever the case is. In the process you look to determine the likely impacts of the development and how you can reduce and mitigate those impacts as much as possible.”

“But,” Murray warns, “it’s not possible to eliminate those impacts. So we figure out how we are going to compensate so that the species present in the area end up in a net situation, where they are hopefully as well off after the project as today.”

Vague, indeterminate and redundant

Environmentalists and consulting engineers often argue from different sides of the fence over the environmental impacts of specific projects, but one thing that everyone agrees upon is that the current assessment system is not working and needs to be changed.

Environmentalists think the current laws are far too lax. Freedman, for example, says the present federal rules don’t go far enough technically. They “don’t adequately take into account cumulative impacts. They don’t always adequately balance the environmental health impacts of a project in an integrated way.”

Others argue that the laws lack clear and substantive measures for making decisions. Lawyer Rodney Northey of Fogler, Rubinoff in Toronto gave a paper to the Ontario Bar Association in February entitled, “The New Era of Ontario Infrastructure: What Laws Govern Infrastructure Planning?” In it, he complained that whether you’re dealing with the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act or the Ontario Environmental Assessment Act: “the criterion of significance is veiled behind multiple considerations and vague opinions….” Northey also points out that under the present regime “No” decisions are extremely rare.

For consulting engineers and their clients, the biggest frustration is the duplicate effort involved in having to do both a federal and provincial assessment.

Eric Giroux, P. Eng., M. Sc., regional director for Quebec City of SNC-Lavalin’s environment division, says: “The main issue we have is having to work with more than one process. It requires the engineering firm or proponent to answer two sets of questions or requirements. It takes more time, more money.” Right now the federal and provincial systems are not compatible: “They have different triggers, they work differently, and administratively they are different,” Giroux explains.

Giroux gives one ludicrous example. In Quebec, fish are protected by the province, while fish habitat (streams, etc.) comes under the jurisdiction of the federal government. But in the case of migratory birds, “it’s exactly the opposite.” The bird habitat is protected by the province, and the birds themselves come under federal jurisdiction. There are historical reasons for this division of authority, but it creates sometimes illogical and very complex layers of requirements. As well, depending on the nature of the project, the assessment might involve not only two governments, but also several different government agencies. Each agency brings its own staff personalities and bureaucracy into the mix, and each is set on protecting its own turf.

So for Giroux, while there is no question that projects must undergo environmental reviews to protect the natural habitat, there needs to be some streamlining: “We can apply the same rules with less effort,” he says.

Just one component of the work — the studies done of the natural habitat to create a baseline for assessing the potential environmental impacts of a planned project — can take an enormous amount of time. “You can imagine the size of some of these documents,” says Paul Ruffell, P. Eng., President of EBA Consultants of Edmonton. Expanding Highway 63 acr
oss the barren muskeg to Fort McMurray, for example, means crossing numerous fish-bearing streams. “Each has to be treated individually and studied to make sure that you don’t have a fish kill there,” explains Ruffell. What’s more, the counts have to be taken over two seasons — in spring and fall.

While the federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans becomes involved for fish habitat, special Navigation Waters protection officers with Transport Canada have to be brought in whenever a project crosses a navigable waterway. A navigable waterway is classed as one that is only big enough to pass through in a canoe.

Ruffell says he supports these rules, but the problem has been a lack of skilled resources in the federal government to deal with the approval applications.

Haphazard Sequencing

If environmental reviews are keeping shovels out of the ground, it’s partly due to poor timing. There is no formalized process for taking projects logically through the various approval stages. It means that fitting environmental approvals in with the planning, political and financial approvals is often a haphazard and messy affair. The result can be logjam.

Steve Willis, MCIP, who is vice president of planning and environmental services for infrastructure engineers MMM Group in Ottawa, gives an example. “Here in Ottawa,” explains Willis, “we’ve had extensive debates about transit. They have been all over the newspapers virtually every single day. Council has agonized over multiple alternatives. Where does it go? What’s the scale? The cost? There has been enormous debate over these issues at public meetings and hearings. And then the city has to start the environmental assessment process as if none of that ever happened.

“Under the current rules they have to say everything is on the table again. Everything is up for discussion. Instead of building a streetcar line, for example, what else could you do? Could you improve the bus service?

“That’s the hardest part. You can use the prior work to a certain extent, but you still have to go through all the procedural steps.

You still expose yourself to challenges on a particular item.”

He says MMM tries to encourage clients to start the environmental review process at an early stage of the project “in tandem with other approvals.” But frugal municipalities are sometimes reluctant to do so, he suggests, because environmental approvals can expire after a certain date. Also, the municipalities might not want to pay consultants’ fees to study a project that is not even approved.

Throw financing into the equation, and it becomes even more complicated because under the present rules the federal government won’t release funds until a project has received approvals. “It’s a chicken and egg situation,” says Willis.

Not So Harmonious

The government’s hopes of somehow reducing and streamlining this process will be a challenge.

Willis explains that the federal and provincial governments have already made efforts to make the two systems work in tandem, but he thinks, “operationally it doesn’t always work. They are very, very different philosophically oriented pieces of legislation.”

Northey’s paper compares some of these fundamental differences in Ontario. He explains that the province’s environmental act puts an emphasis on considering alternatives for a project. The Canadian act focuses more on a specific project and designing it to avoid adverse impacts. He says that because the acts have different approaches it is even possible for them to lead to different conclusions about the same project.

Historically, Northey points out, governments have had little success in integrating their environmental review processes. Northey writes, “the Ontario and federal governments have not, to date, succeeded in agreeing to a single integrated environmental assessment process for any projects that trigger both the CEAA and EAA [Ontario Act].” Instead they have only agreed to integrate timelines. Northey suggests that the environmental assessment processes need to be better integrated with the Planning Act. But that’s likely to be a long way in the future.

What to do?

Perhaps all we can hope for at present is better coordination of timelines between different approval regimes. After his experience with the Ashcroft landfill, Ken Carrusca, P. Eng., division manager of residuals management with Metro Vancouver, suggests that one answer is for governments to set firm timelines and require everyone to strictly adhere to them. He believes that decisiveness is critical. “From talking to colleagues and folks who have been involved in environmental assessment processes,” he says, “what they appear to be looking for from government is this — provide an answer, make a decision whatever that decision might be, and the proponent, the business or the entity, can adjust accordingly.”

Ruffell and others would like to see the federal government outsource to the private sector a role in shepherding projects through the environmental approval stages before actual decisions are made. About two years ago, when Ruffell was president of Consulting Engineers of Alberta, the association initiated an outsourcing procedure for larger projects with Alberta Environment. We said, “We as an industry have the capability. Why not build that capability in the private sector as long as you hang on to the decision-making process.”

Whatever happens, the environmental approvals process in Canada needs to be simplified. It is neither serving the construction industry nor the environmentalists. And its unwieldy results are not even satisfying the general public who are supposed to be benefiting from all this effort. As activist Joseph Lin, president of the Green Club, commented during the environmental reviews for the Richmond Airport Vancouver Rapid Transit: “Thousands of pages of documents regarding environmental impacts … are neither easily accessible nor understandable by the general public.”

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One thing that everyone agrees upon is that the current system is not working well and needs to be changed.

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In Quebec, fish are protected by the province, while fish habitat comes under the jurisdiction of the federal government. But in the case of migratory birds, it’s exactly the opposite.

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