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B.C. enviro regulators compared to feds, come up short in new report

A report released Wednesday comparing the provincial and federal environmental reviews of a controversial gold mine has found B.C. regulators wanting.

Commissioned by the Northwest Institute for Bioregional Research, the report asks why Taseko Mines Ltd.'s Prosperity gold and copper mine was given the go-ahead by the provincial Environmental Assessment Office (EAO), but subsequently denied certification by federal regulators.

"If assessment processes are to be neutrally-administered, objective, technically rigorous exercises," says the report, written by Mark Haddock, an environmental law professor at Royal Roads University, "they should produce more or less the same results."

According to provincial Acting Associate Deputy Minister of the EAO John Mazure, however, things aren't quite so simple.

"We have our own legislation and they have theirs," says Mazure in reference to bot the provincial and federal assessment agencies. "In the case of Prosperity, there were potentially significant economic and social benefits that we looked at and considered while the federal panel, because their legislation, was limited to the extent that they could look at those things."

The Prosperity mine project was initially slated for a joint environmental review panel of provincial and federal regulators. In June 2008, however, the B.C. EAO decided to undertake a separate assessment of the project after Taseko objected to the harmonized process, asserting bias and unaccountability.

In its assessment, the report concludes, the B.C. EAO used less information and adopted lower standards than did federal regulators. In addition, the report questions the "independence" of the B.C. EAO, speculating "whether the reporting relationship of the EAO to the relevant provincial ministers subtly or indirectly affects its judgement, objectivity and neutrality."

"I don't lend a lot of credence to that," says Mazure. "I don't think we have to defend the integrity that we bring to the assessments we do. They're objective."

Because most environmental reviews in British Columbia are conducted as joint exercises between federal and provincial regulators, the separate assessments of the Prosperity project offered British Columbians a unique opportunity to compare the federal and provincial regulatory processes side-by-side, says Pat Moss, Executive Director of the Northwest Institute.

"No one before has taken a look at comparing exactly what did happen within the two processes from an impartial, legal perspective," says Moss. "The conclusion was just what people have been saying previously but without necessarily having the backup: the provincial process was not as thorough at all as the federal one."

As reported by The Tyee earlier this month, a recent report released by the office of the B.C. Auditor General sharply criticized the provincial EAO for its failure to properly monitor projects after they receive certification.

"The Auditor General's report was looking at what happens after there's a certificate and the lack of follow up on conditions and ours is really looking at the adequate process to get to the point of giving certificates," explains Moss. "I think that the two reports together certainly make a pretty strong case that there needs to be a major overhaul of the B.C. assessment office and of the legislation itself."

Ben Christopher is completing a practicum at The Tyee.

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