A pitch for higher level of Ring review – by by Karen Peterson (Thunder Bay Chronicle-Journal – September 16, 2013)

Thunder Bay Chronicle-Journal is the daily newspaper of Northwestern Ontario.

Karen A. Peterson is a consultant in planning, development and impact assessment and a member of Environment North.

Northern Ontario is poised for development, anticipating a multi-billion dollar mining industry and the creation of thousands of jobs. To plan for a sustainable future and to avoid irreversible consequences, an Environmental Assessment (EA) at the highest level of scrutiny is in order.

Review panels are established when the potential for significant impacts is high and/or when serious public concerns are being raised. Although serious concerns are continually being raised regarding the adequacy of the current Comprehensive EA Study to address the magnitude of issues in the Ring of Fire, government has yet to bump up the process to the scrutiny of a Joint Review.

Joint Review Panels are set up when decisions are required by both the federal government and another jurisdiction to avoid duplication. Joint Reviews offer the most comprehensive analysis and public participation. The federal minister of environment, in collaboration with their jurisdictional counterpart, appoints a group of independent experts to conduct the Joint Review in relation to a set of guidelines.

A Joint Review Panel was established for Stillwater Canada Inc’s (SCI) Marathon Platinum and Copper Mine project near Marathon, a project of considerably less scope than the Ring of Fire.

Through intervener funding, the Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency (CEAA) supported individuals, non-governmental organizations, and Aboriginal groups to participate in the EA process.

Environment North was approved for funding which enabled us to hire an expert to review the socio-economic component. Environment North’s experience has been a positive one.

In June 2012, Stillwater submitted their statement of environmental impacts to CEAA. A wide range of interveners from First Nations, Métis, environmental lawyers, technical, bio-physical, water quality, socio-economic and cultural experts commented on the sufficiency and completeness of this document.

Information requests were submitted to the panel for further detail and clarity regarding potential impacts.

Details such as the revenue predicted to stay in the region and clarity regarding SCI’s commitment to hire locally with career path development for local students were the types of information we requested.

After reviewing SCI’s impact statement and all the comments received from interveners, the panel went back to SCI with a list of additional information still required to meet the guidelines.

In response, SCI submitted a revised impact statement. Interveners reviewed the new document and submitted further comments where lack of clarity still remained.

Based on its review of all the information received, the panel informed Stillwater that their environmental impact statement was still not sufficient to proceed to a public hearing and the outstanding deficiencies were identified.

The Joint Review process enabled the voice of the general public and First Nations to be heard, considered and acted upon. Other EA processes pale in comparison.

Public input for environmental screenings is discretionary with no participant funding. Funding for comprehensive studies is trivial and public comments alone cannot provide the due diligence of a Joint Review.

The potential impacts from mining are high. Reclamation is difficult and costly and polluted water from the toxins in the waste rock can take centuries to decontaminate.

Nothing less than a participatory, transparent process can raise awareness about the full scope of issues, cumulative impacts and potential opportunities; otherwise, the process is essentially a self-assessment by industry.

The environment is everybody’s business. It is the natural capital that sustains us all: industry, communities, individuals, societies and cultures.

We not only have an opportunity but an imperative at this juncture in the Ring of Fire to hear the voices being raised and to plan for a sustainable future that balances the economy with nature before there are irreversible effects.