Assessment process needs a serious update

Coalition for the Protection of PEI Water

Meeting with Minister of Communities, Land and Environment, Robert Mitchell and Deputy Minister Michelle Dorsey

October 12, 2017

Improving the Provincial Environmental Assessment Process

The current discussion about ways in which to improve the provincial environmental assessment process coincides with the work of the Multi-Stakeholder Advisory Committee (MIAC), established by the federal Minister of Climate Change and the Environment as part of the effort to improve the federal environmental assessment process.  The committee has six representatives from industry (nuclear, oil and gas, pipelines, etc); Indigenous organizations (Assembly of First Nations, Métis National Council, Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami); and environmental organizations and law centres (West Coast Environmental Law Centre, Quebec Environmental Law Centre, Environmental Coalition of Prince Edward Island, etc.) Gary Schneider of the Coalition for Protection of PEI Water is a member.

The MIAC has developed a set of ten overarching principles for meaningful participation as the foundation for strong and meaningful participatory processes. These principles should be applied to all levels of assessment, including project, regional and strategic EA and to the full suite of EA steps from process initiation through to monitoring and follow-up. Properly applied, they will help restore trust and faith in federal EA processes.

Principles for Meaningful Participation:

  • Participation begins early in the decision process, is meaningful, and builds public confidence;
  • Public input can influence or change the outcome/project being considered;
  • Opportunities for public comment are open to all interested parties, are varied, flexible, include openings for face to face discussions and involve the public in the actual design of an appropriate participation program;
  • Formal processes of engagement, such as hearings and various fora of dispute resolution, are specified and principles of natural justice and procedural fairness are considered in formal processes;
  • Adequate and appropriate notice is provided;
  • Ready access to the information and the decisions at hand is available and in local languages spoken, read and understood in the area;
  • Participant assistance and capacity building is available for informed dialogue and discussion;
  • Participation programs are learning oriented to ensure outcomes for all participants, governments, and proponents;
  • Programs recognize the knowledge and acumen of the public; and
  • Processes need to be fair and open in order for the public to be able to accept a

These principles should be adopted into the provincial process, and in fact will be necessary if Prince Edward Island is ever going to partner with the federal government in larger assessments. Joint assessments will only take place if all parties involved meet the federal standards for environmental assessment.

One of the key recommendations the committee made was that “EA processes should shift towards relationship-building rather than conflict-management.”  On Prince Edward Island, the process has indeed become adversarial – we only need to look to Plan B, the proposed bottled water plant and AquaBounty.  Many, if not most, see it as government and industry together versus the public.  Creating a climate where local knowledge is valued goes a long way towards building partnerships with local communities.

Two of our members, Marie Ann Bowden and myself, have been heavily involved with the Canadian Environmental Network’s Environmental Planning and Assessment Caucus.  Early on, the caucus added “Planning” into its name to better reflect that EA is a planning tool, not just a decision-making process.  The planning – as well as the follow-up and monitoring – lets you develop better projects both now and into the future.

The provincial EA process is missing the “planning” part and jumps right to “assessment”.  That means the public has had little to no involvement in the process until notice runs in a newspaper ad, while the proponent has been working all along with the province.  Since it usually appears as a done deal, it is no wonder that both sides dig their heels in.  One of the key parts of the new federal process will be an emphasis on “early involvement”, where the proponent will be expected to engage the public and draw on their knowledge (whether community or Indigenous) in building a sustainable project with a broad range of benefits.

The federal government is planning to insert the concept of sustainability into the assessment process. Though it has been talked about for years, this is the first government that really seems to be serious about including it in project assessment and will be developing criteria around this.

Our recommendations:

  1. Change how you view environmental assessment process. Good assessment includes the public early in the planning stages and honestly values public input.  Instead of going to battle and trying to bully a project through over public concerns, there should be a partnership there where in the end you come out with better projects.
  2. Provide sufficient notification. When is it proper to notify the public?  As early as possible.  How should you notify the public? It should not just be small ads in the Guardian and Graphic.  Instead, the province should be proactive and contact key groups that might be interested – Women’s Institutes, municipalities, watershed groups, farming and fishing organizations, conservation and environment groups, etc.  That is so easy to do with on-line lists or a working registry.
  3. Involve the public in decisions around consultation. The public should be asked how they would like to be consulted.  When, where, in what form and how often for starters.  We’ve become so reliant on “open houses” that it has become the only tool in the toolbox that is used for public engagement.
  4. Ensure adequate timeframes. Giving the public ten days to consult on a project such as AquaBounty is unfair to say the least.  This project, producing genetically modified food fish, has international implications that certainly people want to have a say in.  This is not just a culvert over a small stream, as important as that might be.  This involves new technology, and also involves a company that promises one thing then tries to deliver another.  Giving the public a short timeframe for looking over hundreds of pages of complicated research and studies is a clear message that you do not actually want them involved, and that their voices will not be heard in any case.  The Technical Review Committee, with their expertise, gets three weeks to make their decision and may even have to go back and ask the proponent for more information.  The public – most, if not all volunteers – should get at least twice that amount of time to carry out a proper review.
  5. Create a sliding scale for public involvement. Since all projects will not be the same, there needs to be a sliding scale, in order for people to have the time to fully review the materials.   It will be dependent on the size and complexity of the project.  It will also depend on the time of year, since projects that involve agricultural land or waterways will need to give farmers and fishers time to participate outside of their busiest harvesting seasons.
  6. Ensure that information is accessible to all interested parties. Internet access of course is critically important, but hard copies should be available at the libraries and/or Access PEI.  If language is an issue, translated documents must be available.
  7. Provide responses to each participant as to why, or why not, their submissions were incorporated into the end document/decision. There are many precedents for this, including the Canadian Standards Associations work on public participation.  This is a key component in building trust with the public.  Too often comments and concerns seem to go into a black hole and the public doesn’t ever really find if their participation had any impact.  Which leaves them wondering whether they should participate in future assessments.
  8. Carry out a public review of the Environmental Impact Assessment Guidelines. For the roundabout in Cornwall, we asked about a public process and were told that the TRC decided there would be no negative environmental impacts.  We also asked about the extensive roadwork in Pownal and were surprised to hear that there was also no public review.  All Acts, regulations and guidelines need to be regularly updated to better reflect the latest levels of science – including social science – and community involvement.  This is where the issue of sustainability could be addressed.

Public involvement should not be seen as a hurdle, but as a positive contribution to ensuring sustainable development throughout the province.  Taking advantage of local knowledge can establish allies and eliminate future problems.

The Coalition for the Protection of PEI Water would like to be part of making our environmental assessment process one of the best in Canada – aiming for what some academics are calling “Next Generation EA”.

Gary Schneider, for ECOPEI,

member of The Coalition for the Protection of PEI Water