Hopefully the Ministry of Forests, Lands and Natural Resource Operations (which took over from the Ministry of Environment) will be administering BC’s riparian regulations more effectively in the future.
The recently released report Striking a Balance: The Challenges of Using a Professional Reliance Model in Environmental Protection – British Columbia’s Riparian Areas by the BC Ombudsperson has local implications as well as local origins. The full March 2014 report is here and is an important read for riparian issues both past and present. The report came up with 21 findings and 25 recommendations.
Kudos to the Office of the Ombudsperson, WA:TER and local citizens, professionals and non, who have exposed the inadequacies in BC’s riparian protection.
An introductory quote provided to Aim High by Warren Bell:
“This report makes it clear that the impression, drawn by citizens of this community, that the provincial government wasn’t really “minding the store” when it came to environmental assessment was actually true. The Ombudsperson has done an excellent job of pointing out the many failures of the Ministry with respect to the Riparian Areas Regulation, and set out 25 conditions to remedy them. The Ministry has committed to follow through on all of them.
Although it came too late to influence the situation in this community, it gives us all a more level playing field from which to operate when it comes to future projects.”
A direct quote from the report itself referencing WA:TER’s involvement in challenging SmartCentres-contracted QEP report and the eventual reduction of the development site from 24 to 6.5 hectares (page 95):
A group of concerned citizens contacted our office with a complaint about the process followed by the ministry in approving a RAR assessment report. The report determined the streamside protection and enhancement area (SPEA) applicable to a proposed large commercial development. At the time, it was ministry practice to approve assessment reports before allowing local governments to proceed with the development permit process. The ministry identified problems with the assessment report and required the QEP to amend and re-submit the report three times. While the fourth version of the assessment report was, in the ministry’s opinion, correct on paper, the ministry did not visit the proposed development site before approving the report.
The citizens were concerned about the impact of the proposed development on important salmon habitat. They obtained and reviewed a copy of the assessment report from their local government, and questioned whether the QEP had correctly followed the RAR’s assessment methods. Some of the citizens had training in biology, which increased their ability to understand and respond to the report. The citizens contacted the ministry with their concerns, and, as a result, the ministry, for the first time in the history of the RAR, hired an outside consultant to review the QEP’s work. The ministry ultimately required the QEP to submit a fifth assessment report. This resulted in a reduction of the area available for the development from more than 24 hectares to approximately 6.5 hectares.
The introduction from the report itself (page 7):
One of the important and recurring roles of government in modern society is to find an appropriate balance between two sometimes competing public interests such as development and environmental protection . In Canada, finding that balance can be particularly challenging when many levels of government — federal, provincial and local — have a role to play in protecting the same environment . As well, in recent years achieving this balance has become more complex . Many governments have moved towards a less prescriptive model of environmental protection that relies on proponents of a development hiring or having their own professionals conduct assessments of the environmental effects of certain activities . This change is based on the expectation that such professionals will apply the correct methodology, produce consistent results and provide the best advice available for protecting the environment . The role of public servants in this professional reliance model is to monitor compliance by these professionals with statutory or regulatory requirements .
Those challenges and complexities are reflected in the subject matter of this report which focuses on the Riparian Areas Regulation (RAR) . The RAR is part of the legislative and regulatory framework which protects the natural environment in British Columbia. The RAR is provincial legislation that was enacted in 2005 and which provides protection to areas surrounding streams, lakes and inland waters in the most populated areas of our province from development that will damage the habitat of the fish in those waters .
While fish are a federal responsibility, inland waterways are a provincial responsibility, and development is often the responsibility of local governments . This interconnection was recognized in the formation of a RAR Steering Committee which has members representing the federal government, the provincial government and local governments . The story of the RAR is an example of what can occur when there is shared federal, provincial and local government responsibility for environmental protection .
The RAR also highlights the complexities of administering a program that relies on professionals hired by proponents of a development being monitored by ministry staff and having deficiencies dealt with by their own professional associations . Even with good intentions and a dedicated, but small ministry staff, over several years the promise of a program can remain unfulfilled and gaps in information, training, oversight and reporting can develop .
The Ministry of Forests, Lands and Natural Resource Operations has accepted 24 of the 25 recommendations made to it to ensure this environmental protection program functions in an administratively fair manner . In the case of the one recommendation it did not accept, Recommendation 10, which was to have all submitted reports reviewed by ministry staff, the ministry has made it clear that in its view this is not necessary in a professional reliance model . The ministry has, however, agreed to review all reports for a period of at least two years before looking at moving to a sample audit program .
I hope that this investigation into the operation of the Riparian Areas Regulation highlights a number of useful lessons that may assist any other environmental protection programs in British Columbia facing similar challenges
Check it out. If you are a community faced with similar encroachment or adequate-report issues, closely read the report and contact WA:TER. I’m sure that they’ll provide valuable background and advice.
Also, Steve Corrie’s The Core of the Matter on Voice of the Shuswap (CKVS FM 93.7) is slated to have a discussion on this. I’ll post up the podcast link if one is available.