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Changes to Fisheries Act provide 'flexibility' for pollution: Minister

Fisheries Minister Keith Ashfield says that controversial changes to the Fisheries Act will make it legal for the Canadian government to allow corporations to pollute Canadian waterways.

In a letter to Tom Panas, President of the Union of Environment Workers (which was obtained by The Tyee) Ashfield said there are currently few tools ”to authorize pollution other than by detailed regulations.”

But the newly amended Fisheries Act provides “flexibility” for the government, Ashfield wrote, and gives it “new tools to authorize deposits of deleterious substances,” otherwise known as pollutants.

Four former fisheries ministers, the Union of Environment Workers and most of the nation’s scientific community opposed changes to the Act which were bundled in the government’s omnibus budget bill.

The old act, one of Canada’s strongest environmental laws, protected fish habitat from harm and “deleterious substances”. The amended act protects only a few fish deemed commercially or recreational valuable from “serious harm.”

Former fisheries minister John Fraser told the Vancouver Sun that the changes were ruinous:

“To take habitat out of the Fisheries Act is a very serious error because you can’t save fish if you don’t save habitat, and I say this as a lifelong conservative. People who want to eliminate the appropriate safeguards…aren’t conservatives at all, they’re ideological right-wingers with very, very limited understanding, intelligence or wisdom.”

The removal of habitat protection for fish also removes protection for amphibians, reptiles, mussels, crayfish and aquatic insects.

A May 29th letter from the Canadian Society for Ecology and Evolution, which represents 1,000 scientists, warned the minister that changes to the act “will also impair Canada’s ability to fulfill its legislated obligations to prevent the extinction of aquatic species.”

According to Postmedia, pipeline giant Enbridge lobbied hard for the changes the Fisheries Act to support its application to build the Northern Gateway pipeline across more than 700-fish bearing waterways in British Columbia.

David Schindler, a world famous water ecologist, found Ashfield’s admissions simply “incredible” when contacted by The Tyee.

“Despite widespread opposition to Bill C38 and the related changes to the Fisheries Act and Canadian Environmental Assesment Act by several previous Ministers of Fisheries, virtually the entire scientific community, aboriginal groups and Fishermen's organizations, the Conservatives continue to shamelessly force their agenda on Canadians,” said Schindler.

“This is not the way democracy works. In the USA, such behaviour would be grounds for impeachment.”

Environmental critics have charged that Bill C-38 guts any environmental legislation or scientific research body that might challenge, limit or impede oil and gas development in the country.

Award-winning journalist Andrew Nikiforuk writes about energy for The Tyee and others.

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