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Greasing the Way for Backroom Deals

B.C.'s new 'Streamlining Act' doesn't just trim red tape. Suddenly, projects that pollute and threaten health can be rubber stamped beyond public view.

By Chris Rolfe 23 Dec 2003 | TheTyee.ca

On December 2, just as most of us were beginning to hang up our Christmas lights, BC passed what is perhaps the most draconian piece of legislation the province has ever known. In fact, outside of emergency legislation like the War Measures Act, no other legislation in Canada, the US or Britain passes such extensive powers from parliament and legislatures to the executive.

But, with almost no media coverage or public debate, Bill 75 - the Significant Project Streamlining Act -- passed two weeks ago with barely a whisper.

What does it all mean?

Imagine this: a multinational corporation wants to place an open pit mine in the middle of Manning Park. Sure, it might pose threats to local ecosystems and threaten drinking water sources -- but it would generate millions in provincial tax revenue.

The problem is, mining in Parks is illegal, pollution from the mine will contravene health protection standards, and the public can appeal pollution permits that threaten their health. Away with pesky 'constraints'

Now let's say the corporation's CEO has good friends within the provincial government. Cabinet says the project is in the public interest, and orders the Minister of Mines to remove any "red tape" facing the project. And the Minister of Mines makes it happen: there's no public process, no debate in the legislature, no cost-benefit analysis, no health impact assessment, no elements of the transparent and accountable decision-making promised by the current government. Next thing we know, the government announces that the mine is going forward.

But this is the 21st century, you say. We have laws, like the Parks Act, the Health Act, and the Waste Management Act, that provide checks and balances to ensure development decisions are transparent, responsible, fair and in the best long-term public interest, don't we? There's no way a few politicians could unilaterally sweep aside municipal and provincial laws in order to ram through an environmentally risky development, with no kind of public process and no public explanation. Right?

Wrong.

The Significant Project Streamlining Act makes just this scenario possible.

It gives BC Cabinet ministers extraordinary powers to make orders replacing any provincial or local government laws, regulations or bylaw perceived to be a "constraint" to projects that cabinet deems to be "provincially significant." But the Act doesn't set out any criteria as to what constitutes a "significant" project. It doesn't set out criteria for the orders replacing the supposed "constraints". And it doesn't set out criteria for the "constraints" themselves. As defined in Act, constraints may include provincial or local laws, regulations and bylaws, as well as any other government policy or program. And a constraint doesn't even have to be real - it only has to be "perceived". A proponent could even argue that paying his or her share of taxes is a constraint on a project.

It gets worse. Under this proposed legislation, the Minister responsible will not even be required to give reasons accounting for his or her decisions.

Examples of projects that could be approved under the Act include:

Projects with pollution levels that contravene health protection standards

Currently, there are few legally binding health protection standards for pollution, but government officials have to approve industrial facilities that threaten public health, and the public has a right to appeal any pollution permits government gives to industry. Under the Significant Projects Streamlining Act, any health protection standards can be waived, any need for a government permit can be waived and the public has no right to challenge the result.

Mines in parks contrary to the Park Act

Currently, the Parks Act prohibits the expansion of industrial activities in Parks. In most cases the legislature would need to amend the Park Act or park boundaries before allowing expansion of a mine or hydro reservoir in a Park. Indeed, the government recently backed down on allowing hydro development in Strathcona Park, in part because it was illegal. Under the Significant Projects Streamlining Act, a minister could approve "provincially significant" mining or hydro developments in Parks.

Polluters in residential neighbourhoods contrary to local government bylaws

The city council in Port Alberni recently blocked development of a natural gas fired power generation plant that threatened air quality in a neighbouring residential area. Under the Significant Projects Streamlining Act, the Province could declare the project provincially significant and override local concerns. Local nuisance bylaws and zoning bylaws would not apply.

And, although the Significant Project Streamlining Act is technically subject to the Environmental Assessment Act, this provides little comfort. The Environmental Assessment Act was deregulated in 2002, so that the government can already decide to exclude a project from environmental assessment, force fast approvals and eliminate any public consultation or other processes designed to ensure adequate assessment.

So much for open, accountable government.

Chris Rolfe is a lawyer, and the Executive Director at West Coast Environmental Law, one of Canada's oldest public interest. For more information ,visit http://www.wcel.org/, or call 604-684-7378.  [Tyee]

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