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Changes to waterways access law should be delayed: lawyer

The amendments to the federal Navigable Waters Protection Act should be pulled out of Stephen Harper's budget bill and considered more fully in the spring, said a lawyer fighting the changes.

“Ecojustice recommends that the proposed amendments be withdrawn from the Budget Implementation Act,” said a Feb. 19 memo by Ecojustice staff lawyer Will Amos. “At the very least, it would only be appropriate for the proposed changes to be considered more fully by all relevant constituencies in the spring of 2009, when the federal government has announced that it will be presenting a bill to reform the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act.”

The proposed amendments would give the Transport Minister the ability to excuse whole classes of project from the need for approvals or environmental assessments, as noted in a Tyee report today. The Harper government is proposing the amendments as a way to accelerate projects.

"Wrecking the environment to stimulate the economy is not the direction we need to go," Amos told the Tyee.

The federal Liberals are in a position to block the amendments, which the federal NDP already oppose, but have so far said they will support Harper's budget. Calls to the Liberals about the issue were directed to environment critic David McGuinty, who did not call back by publication time.

B.C. Liberal Premier Gordon Campbell last week called for the Navigable Waters Protection Act to be repealed entirely, a position Amos said reflected a “profound misunderstanding” of the legislation and the role of the federal government.

The province can protect people's right to travel the country's waterways, Campbell told reporters last week. "We're capable of doing that in British Columbia without checking with the federal government."

While the province might be capable of protecting waterways, said Amos, it doesn't. “The [Environmental Assessment] executive director has complete discretion to decide which types of projects will be required to undergo an EA,” wrote Amos. “In general, the executive director has only required large projects to undergo an EA. As a result, many projects that interfere with recreational navigation are not subject to an EA under the B.C. regime.”

He provided examples of projects that would be excused: any run-of-the-river hydro projects with less than 50 megawatts generating capacity; filling or dredging less than one kilometre of marine coastline; and the construction of fewer than 20 kilometres of new roads and bridges.

“For these examples, the [Navigable Waters Protection Act] would typically require the effects on navigation to be mitigated, however, under the proposed amendments, such mitigation may not take place,” Amos wrote. “This lack of mitigation could significantly devalue many of the best remaining recreational waterways in B.C..”

Amos is to appear before the House of Commons Standing Committee on Finance this evening in Ottawa to talk about the issue, according to the committee's agenda, as will members of the Ontario Federation of Anglers and Hunters, Lake Ontario Waterkeeper, CanoeKayak Canada and the Sierra Club of Canada.

Andrew MacLeod is The Tyee’s Legislative Bureau Chief in Victoria. Reach him here.

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