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B.C.'s EA process evolves

Critics still see room for improvement in environmental assessments, despite new website

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As MLA for the Sea to Sky region, Jordan Sturdy is used to hearing a common refrain from constituents.

"I hear it all the time. There's a perception out there that projects are simply approved," Sturdy said, referring specifically to development projects required to pass through B.C.'s Environmental Assessment (EA) Office.

That public sentiment is understandable in a riding where residents have watched Woodfibre LNG's proposal to build a natural-gas facility near Howe Sound inch closer to reality in spite of significant local opposition.

In an interview with Pique this month, My Sea to Sky co-founder Tracey Saxby went so far as to question the validity of the EA process for Woodfibre LNG.

"There's not a whole lot of oversight or looking out for the environment and even public safety when (the province) is so determined to have this facility up and running," she said. "It really makes the legitimacy of the entire process highly questionable."

But, is it simply a matter of government officials serving their own interests, or a lack of understanding of the highly technical EA process that lends itself to the public's distrust?

"Often people feel that (the EAO rubber-stamps projects) because it's so rare that there have been decisions by ministers to reject an application," said Kevin Jardine, associate deputy minister for the B.C. Environmental Assessment Office. That's because far more projects enter the EA stream than ever reach the approval stages, which often follows years' and millions of dollars' worth of fine-tuning that many developers aren't inclined to spend.

"The whole process is a refinement process and that leads to very few circumstances in which ministers find themselves lacking confidence in the project or the project's ability to effectively address significant environmental, social, economic, health effects," added Jardine.

The province has spent the better part of two decades working to improve public engagement around its EA process in an effort to meet "increasing expectations for transparent and rigorous environmental assessments." Records relating to all EAs in B.C. were first available online in 2002, but the digital platform used to access that information grew increasingly outdated over the years. That's why, in 2014, the EAO vowed to modernize the system, resulting in the release this month of a beta version of the government's EAO Project Information & Collaboration System, or EPIC.

Sturdy called it "the new standard" for environmental assessment.

"This is a web-based system... that tracks the overall evolution and individual streams of a proposed project, and both of those things will help people better understand the EA process and understand how projects move through an application," he said.

The concept was to create "a one-stop shop" where the public could more easily access a project's approval and permitting conditions, the results of compliance inspections, along with government and proponent contact details.

"It was (previously) very difficult for people to get to the info they wanted and in a way that was intuitive," Jardine noted. "What you see now in our new EPIC site is an example of the type of change that the EAO, and the government more broadly, is trying to make in making information more available and more transparent."

John Werring, senior policy advisor for the David Suzuki Foundation, called the EPIC site a positive step by the province, although he acknowledged "some refinement" is still needed.

For his part, Werring isn't so much concerned about a lack of transparency at the EAO as he is the timing of mandated public-consultation periods, which he believes come far too late in the process and give the public limited time to review thousands of project documents.

"You often have 30 days to go through all this information, digest it, come up with a position and describe the position in a rational sense before making a submission and hoping it has an impact. It's far too late," he said. "Public engagement should be right at the beginning of the process, before it even goes to an environmental assessment. The company should be in the community talking to people, saying, 'this is what we're proposing to do, what do you think?'"

EPIC can be accessed at www.eao.goc.bc.ca. The public is encouraged to provide feedback on the site by emailing epicsupport.eao@gov.bc.ca.

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