Canadian Consulting Engineer

Feature

Dazed and confused by the new EA rules

Joanne Vince, an environmental lawyer, warns on page 20: "Don’t be fooled" by the fact that the 2012 Canadian Environmental Assessment Act has a similar name to its predecessor. With the new law that came into effect last July, the...


Joanne Vince, an environmental lawyer, warns on page 20: “Don’t be fooled” by the fact that the 2012 Canadian Environmental Assessment Act has a similar name to its predecessor. With the new law that came into effect last July, the federal government brought in sweeping changes to how it controls the environmental impact of construction projects that fall under its jurisdiction.

The Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency is still tinkering with the list of project types that will or will not require an environmental assessment. So far, according to an article published in the Gazette on April 20, it’s an odd list. Excluded are large industrial operations, such as potash mines, pulp and paper plants, chemical manufacturers and groundwater extraction facilities. Not exactly what you would call squeaky clean operations.

Meanwhile the government has added projects such as diamond mines, railway yards, international and interprovincial bridges and tunnels, and offshore exploratory wells.

For oil sands mines it’s more complex. In one paragraph the list includes “expansions to oil sands mines.” In the next point it excludes “heavy and oil sands processing facilities.”

What does it all mean for consulting engineers? First it means trying to find your way in the new rules. Vince’s article lays out some of the groundwork, but until several projects have actually gone through the process, we’ll be stumbling around in the twilight.

To start with, depending on who are your clients and what types of project you work with, you may find they no longer require a federal environmental assessment because a provincial assessment will suffice.

Your clients may be happy about this, but environmental groups are not. They say that environmental assessments will apply to “fewer and fewer” projects.

And Richard Lindgren of the Canadian Environmental Law Association says: “I take no comfort from the fact that there’s a possibility that some projects might get picked up by a provincial environmental assessment.” He argues that the provincial and territorial regimes vary considerably, and that there are “lots of gaps and loopholes.” For example, Ontario’s Environmental Assessment Act is rarely applied to private sector projects.

The Canadian government says its intention is to focus on “major projects that have the greatest potential for significant adverse environmental effects in areas of federal jurisdiction.” In other words, it is only interested in the large projects. For this it has taken an approach of applying “thresholds” to ensure that only projects of a certain size are captured. For example, it lists as designated for a review the construction of a metal mine with a production capacity of more than 3,000 tonnes a day, or the expansion of a metal mine by 50% to a total capacity of more than 3,000 tonnes a day.

But environmental groups point out that small and medium-size projects can create indirect and cumulative environmental effects. They are also concerned that proponents may design a project at a capacity just below the threshold in order to get it in under the wire.

Lindgren calls the government’s list of designated projects “baffling” while the Harper government strives to create rules that have “clarity.” And no doubt both sides sincerely believe they are acting in the best interests of Canadians. In the middle are the rest of us: confused and baffled in our own way about how all this should work out. Bronwen Parsons