Environmental groups pitch planning solution for Far North – by Bryan Phelan (Wawatay News – September 18, 2014)


Ontario’s three major political parties promised during the 2014 provincial election campaign to speed mining development in the Ring of Fire.

At the same time, however, two environmental groups were making finishing touches on a report calling for the province to put the brakes on that development, at least for now.

Just four days after the Liberals were re-elected to power in June, the environmental groups Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) Canada and Ecojustice released a report suggesting Ontario needs a whole new approach to planning for the Far North. In the meantime, no Ring of Fire projects should be approved, the groups said in their report, titled Getting it Right in Ontario’s Far North: The Need for Strategic Environmental Assessment in the Ring of Fire (Wawangajing).

The existing legal framework for industrial development in the region is “broken,” said Anastasia Lintner, a lawyer and economist who co-authored the report on behalf of Ecojustice along with a conservation scientist from WCS, Cheryl Chetkiewicz. Part of the problem, they showed, is that planning taking place now is piecemeal and narrowly focused on individual projects or pieces of projects. “The Far North faces uncoordinated resource development with little consideration for cumulative impacts (of multiple projects),” the co-authors wrote in the report’s summary.

And that, they argued, increases the risks of development for the region’s environment, people and economy, especially given all the future industrial activity predicted.

“More industrial development is coming to the Far North, including mining, forestry and hydroelectric development, and it will require significant infrastructure, including roads, railroads, transmission lines, construction sites, worker housing and exploration camps, and industrial waste disposal,” noted the summary.

In the heart of Ontario’s Far North, the Ring of Fire, there were at least 39 individual mining claim owners as of February, according to the report. “There is a strong likelihood of a large cluster of mining projects and supporting developments over time in the area. These projects will have impacts that are more than the sum of their individual parts and need to be looked at … in terms of their cumulative impacts, cumulative benefits, and legacies for the future of the region and the people that live there.”

Over 136 pages, Ecojustice and WCS make the case in the Getting it Right report that this big picture should be looked at first, through a tool already used in more than 60 countries around the world, including Canada – Regional Strategic Environmental Assessment (R-SEA). “At a minimum, an R-SEA process should be required for the Ring of Fire before project-based environmental assessments and approvals can proceed,” the report recommended.

Added Lintner, until recently a staff lawyer and economist for Ecojustice: “Embracing this process will create a more sustainable future, where development doesn’t come at the expense of contaminated water and land.”

‘What’s the vision?’

Ecojustice and WCS have lobbied for at least three years to have a Regional Strategic Environmental Assessment address change in Ontario’s Far North.

“What is an R-SEA?” they asked in a three-page document in 2011, then answered: “The seminal contribution of R-SEA is to explore alternative future scenarios and key environmental goals and objectives for a region. This discussion can inform the pace and nature of future development, including significant regional environmental thresholds, targets and limits. It can also advance decision‐making about management and assessment of cumulative environmental and social effects in a region.”

Asked by Wawatay News how an R-SEA would account for cumulative effects in the Ring of Fire when future mine projects are unknown, Lintner replied: “Generally, we’d anticipate that there would be agreement about the likely development scenarios. For example, there’s information about the mineral potential and a few options regarding the scope and number of mines could be considered. The agreed-upon development scenarios could then be used in conjunction with cumulative effects models to provide information about the impacts.”

An R-SEA differs from current project-based environmental assessment in a number of key ways, Ecojustice and WCS noted in their Getting it Right report this year, “but most importantly by establishing a widely supported roadmap for reaching a set of objectives that have First Nations, government, and other stakeholder support.” It’s a more strategic process, Lintner explained, “where we kind of step (back) and say ‘What kind of future do we want? What’s the vision?’ and then use those outcomes to help guide what projects, where, on what timing.”

In other words, “It is a much different process than simply ‘tweaking’ individual project plans or community-based land-use plans,” Lintner and Chetkiewicz wrote in their report. “The current environmental assessment process is about approval with mitigation, following a pre-determined course of action, rather than addressing sustainability. While a land-use planning process also could address sustainability in greater depth, these planning efforts remain disconnected from environmental assessment processes.” Also, they pointed out, “there is no mechanism to coordinate the plans coming out of various communities.”

In July, Ontario’s Ministry of Northern Development and Mines (MNDM) was reviewing the recommendations of the Getting it Right report, said a ministry spokeswoman, Julia Bennett.
“Ontario supports sustainable and collaborative development in the Ring of Fire that strikes the right balance between environmental protection and resource development,” Bennett said. She pointed out that the Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry last year started development of a Far North Land Use Strategy with the goal of having a draft strategy ready by early 2015.

To WCS and Ecojustice, the current “uncoordinated” approach is unacceptable, given the size and importance of the region. “Ontario’s Far North is the world’s largest ecologically intact area of boreal forest. It contains North America’s largest wetlands; is home to a number of at-risk species, including caribou and sturgeon; and is one of the world’s critical storehouses of carbon. First Nations depend on these systems for food and medicines, sustenance of cultural and spiritual values, their livelihoods and rights.

“Simply put, this is not a place that can be … restored if it is damaged or destroyed by poorly planned development.”

Beyond boom and bust

For First Nations, an R-SEA might help address another issue as well, suggested Getting it Right. “Projects based on exploitation of non-renewable resources, such as those in the Ring of Fire, have a limited life expectancy and cannot be sustainable. Because economies based on these resources are characterized as boom-and-bust, they cannot provide a lasting foundation for viable livelihoods and they often contribute to community vulnerability due to an over-reliance on a single industry. The development legacy of mining projects on Indigenous peoples, particularly post-closure, has often been negative.”

Ultimately, CWS and Ecojustice contend, addressing sustainability will require a different planning approach in Ontario’s Far North and new tools, such as R-SEA.

Currently, Lintner said, “When we approve projects on a project by project basis, the proponent is only going to be thinking about what they need and we can’t force them to think about what everybody else needs.

“But if we had a process that engaged everybody – the industry, First Nations, the government, the civil society that cares about these things – to talk about … the futures we could build for, then everybody can work towards that and figure out how it benefits all, the collective.
Instead of (mining companies focused on) just ‘I need to put in my mine, so I need the infrastructure to go right to my mine, or make it easy to get from my mine to a refinery’ … we could have it be multiple benefits. I just see it as an opportunity to do so much more to make sure the communities there benefit from accessing those resources in a way that impact-benefit agreements (IBAs) and other stuff hasn’t done in the past.”

She pointed to the De Beers Victor diamond mine in northeastern Ontario as an example. “There’s an IBA with the First Nation, Attawapiskat, but did we think about whether there was infrastructure that could assist the mine and also assist Attawapiskat? No, not at all,” she said.

“So we may end up with a big legacy problem up there. The community will be left there once the mines are exhausted. And having allowed access in traditional territories and in the watershed of the First Nation, we haven’t really figured out how to benefit them way into the future.”

In the case made by the Getting it Right co-authors, all of this points to an R-SEA for the path forward in the Ring of Fire.

Once started, it’s a process Lintner estimated could take anywhere from one to three years.

“Adopting an R-SEA planning process is way of building consensus around where, when, and in what form development is appropriate, as opposed to our current processes that ask communities … to bear the long-term impacts of new development,” Chetkiewicz said.