Stakeholders brace for sweeping changes on environmental protection laws – by Mike De Souza (Ottawa Citizen – February 15, 2012)

OTTAWA — Industry and conservation groups are bracing for the federal government to introduce sweeping changes this month to reduce Canada’s environmental protection laws in order to speed up reviews on proposed projects.

All stakeholders agree that certain changes would be welcome to improve the process, but some have also warned the government that it could cause more harm than good if it proposes a plan that ignores long-term benefits or consequences of projects.

“It’s all very well to say we need more mines, but how do we actually know that they are actually going to be sustainable or going to be of net benefit to Canada?” asked Stephen Hazell, an Ottawa-based environmental lawyer.

While he said some mines have clear benefits, he noted that a recent arsenic spill at an old gold mine near Yellowknife raises serious concerns, especially because of melting permafrost.

“If that arsenic gets out of control, it will contaminate the entire Great Slave Lake, and there’s no doubt about that,” said Hazell. “What are the costs of managing those tailings, indefinitely?”

Environmental groups have also urged the government to maintain funding that is offered to help local groups research and prepare presentations to review panels that require detailed information on impacts before making recommendations on the best approaches for eliminating detrimental impacts of development.

Environment Minister Peter Kent declined to give an interview about the issue, but several members of the government, including Conservative MPs reviewing the existing legislation at a parliamentary committee, have suggested the environmental review period takes too long.

Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver recently singled out the environmental review process has the culprit that delayed the approval process of major projects such as the proposed Mackenzie Valley Pipeline project as well as the Joslyn oilsands project. Hazell has suggested the cases are a smokescreen, noting that the pipeline proposal faced some delays because of technical engineering aspects of building the infrastructure through permafrost in the north, while the oilsands project faced some delays because of financing issues following the recent economic slowdown.

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