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article imageAnalysis finds lakes, rivers lost key protections in Harper govt.

By Megan Hamilton     Sep 3, 2015 in Environment
Ottawa - Recent statistical analysis of changes made to environmental laws and procedures by Canada's conservative government under Prime Minister Stephen Harper show that protections for lakes and rivers have been "all but abandoned," The Canadian Press reports.
"Over the last decade, what we've seen is a not-so-gradual abandonment of the fish habitat protection field," University of Calgary law professor Martin Olszynski told The Canadian Press.
Olszynski pored over reams of data and scores of development applications and this led him to conclude that federal protection for fisheries and waterways has, indeed, been declining for more than a decade.
The professor found that environmental oversight by the Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) plummeted during the 2000s; and this is at a time when spending skyrocketed in Canada's resource industries, the Press reports.
Olszynski believes changes to environmental laws in 2012 weren't intended to cut red tape, as the government previously suggested, but were an attempt to lower the environmental bar.
"What my data suggests is that the narrative provided doesn't add up in terms of this unduly intrusive regulatory regime. It was never really about reducing red tape."
The DFO wasn't immediately available for comment, the Press reported.
In a paper he wrote for the Journal of Environmental Law and Practice, Olszynski showed that the number of proposals to the department's Central and Pacific regions dropped drastically from more than 12,000 in 2001 to less than 4,000 in 2014.
Beginning in 2004, the government decided to reduce oversight for projects considered low-risk, and that cut the number of projects it reviewed by half. Then, in 2012, the rest of the decrease came in 2012 when the government revamped environmental laws.
One of the laws that was "revamped" was Canada's 120-year-old Navigable Waters Act, which protected tens of thousands of bodies of water. It was gutted in 2012 by a federal omnibus bill, ThinkProgress reports. The bill stripped environmental protections away from 99 percent of Canada's lakes and rivers and is now called the Navigation Protection Act.
The Canadian Environmental Assessment Act was also gutted, and that resulted in the immediate cancellation of 3,000 environmental reviews — and some of these reviews would have investigated oil and gas projects. One of the changes even exempted from review oil pipelines that run under waterways, Emma Lui, a representative for the Council of Canadians, told ThinkProgress.
Enforcement was largely derailed, The Canadian Press notes.
Environmental warnings and charges under the Fisheries Act fell, Olszynski said, from 300 to about 50, and staff time that was allotted to enforcement dropped from 35,000 hours to 10,000. Then, in 2012 the department's budget was slashed by $80 million. A further $100 million in cuts are planned over the next three years.
Pressure from the oil and gas industry is largely responsible for the severe reductions in regulatory oversight for Canada's waterways, environmentalists say, according to ThinkProgress. Shale oil and gas, coupled with tar sands oil, make up the bulk of Canada's domestic energy extraction industry and this has been the subject of environmental concern and litigation for some time.
If pipelines carrying tar sands leak, this can be especially devastating. Tar sands produce heavy, bitumen crude, ThinkProgress notes. Unlike other types of oil, bitumen sinks in water, and this makes spills more difficult to clean up and considerably more destructive environmentally. One pipeline in Michigan ruptured in 2010, spilling 800,000 gallons of bitumen crude into the Kalamazoo River. It became the costliest inland oil spill in U.S. History.
Since 2008, just two years after Harper took office, federal officials met with oil industry representatives more than four times as often as they met with environmentalists, reported the Polaris Institute, a Canadian think tank, ThinkProgress reports. Harper has also previously worked for Imperial Oil Limited, which is owned by Exxon.
In a separate report, titled "Blue Betrayal," Maude Barlow, a former UN adviser on water, and the current national chairperson for the Council of Canadians, revealed that Harper's administration has caved in to pressuring from mining companies, allowing them to pour toxic wastes into lakes, Only Slightly Biased reports.
The administration has also started allowing fracking companies to sue the government so that they can appropriate sources of clean drinking water to use in their commercial applications.
In her report, Barlow also notes that about three million gallons of contaminated water enters the Canadian water table daily. The chemicals involved — used to extract natural gas and oil — are almost impossible to remove once they enter the water.
The Canadian Press notes that records show development on lakes and rivers has kept a steady pace. Numerous studies and peer-reviewed papers have also documented impacts on forests and waterways are increasing rapidly.
The federal government contends it's getting out of the regulatory end and letting provinces take over so that duplication is reduced.
However, if red tape was the only issue, Olszynski said, that should have been solved in 2004 when Ottawa began backing off overseeing some projects.
He wrote:
"(Department of Fisheries and Oceans) appears to have been exemplary in reducing the administrative burden on proponents carrying out what it deemed to be low-risk activities.
"Rather, the problem appears to have been substantive; government (or) proponents, or both, deemed actual compliance (i.e. avoidance and mitigation of impacts to fish habitat) too burdensome."
Provincial approvals for development projects still must abide by federal law, however, Olszynski said his analysis shows that the department often doesn't see many of these proposals.
Reducing assessments for low-risk developments can be a valid way to reduce regulatory overload, Olsyzynski noted. However, for that to work, oversight and enforcement must be credible.
"DFO says we will reduce the burden on you, but you still have to comply with the act. What evidence is available suggests that industry did not keep their end of the bargain, Olszynski said. "The strong deterrent signal wasn't there ... in terms of enforcement."
Harper is up for re-election in October, ThinkProgress notes. Thomas Mulcair, the New Democratic Party candidate is calling for increasing the review process for pipeline projects and has criticized Harper for "gutting" the process.
Something that Canadians may wish to keep in mind when they head to the voting booth this October.
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