Looking Deeper Into Fish Lake

Grizzly bears are one of the
species identified by the
Prosperity Review Panel
that would be adversely affected
by development at Fish Lake.

 

The government of Canada made a good decision earlier this week when it turned down a proposal for an excessively damaging mine at Fish Lake, British Columbia. Nature Canada congratulated Environment minister Jim Prentice for respecting the conclusions of the federal environmental assessment of the project, and for respecting the will of First Nations about land use in their territory. Looking deeper into the context of that decision reveals some important insights and implications.

Environmental assessment works
While the process of environmental assessment may seem mysterious from a distance, Nature Canada has been up close and personal with it many times over the years and we are convinced it works. Environmental assessment allows independent panels to consider expert testimony, reach conclusions about the likely environmental impacts of a proposed project, and identify mitigation measures that could limit the damage. The resulting recommendation to the government (and it is only a recommendation) can range from approval of the project, to approval on the condition that certain mitigation measures be required, to rejection of the project as proposed.

Politics happens
The government must then decide whether or not to accept the recommendations about the studied project, and this is where the hard facts of environmental assessment meet the vagaries of politics. The government can follow the recommendations completely, partially, or not at all. But thanks to the public nature of the assessment process, we the citizens know whether or not our government is approving projects that destroy our environment. This is where the vagaries of politics meet accountability to the voters. In the case of Fish Lake, Minister Prentice deserves credit for doing the right thing for Canada, despite pressure from within his own caucus to do otherwise.

More to come
Nature Canada is very engaged in two other environmental assessments that are awaiting a response from the federal government: proposed gas drilling in the Suffield National Wildlife Area, and the proposed Mackenzie gas project.

In the case of the Suffield NWA, the environmental assessment report concludes that the proposal to drill 1,275 gas wells would interfere with the purpose of the National Wildlife Area. It also recommends that the government complete overdue work to identify the critical habitat of species at risk, and take other conservation action even if the project does not proceed. We are hopeful that Minister Prentice will accept all of this panel’s recommendations too, reject the gas drilling project, and take other actions to better protect the national wildlife area.
In the case of the Mackenzie gas project, the federal government has been accused of attempting to secretly make the panel rewrite some of its recommendations. This suggests a lack of appreciation for a key feature upon which citizens depend: the independence of environmental assessment panels. We congratulate the panel for standing up for the their independence in the interest of Canada. We hope Minister Prentice will show leadership and convince his cabinet colleagues to accept the panel’s report. You can help us encourage the government to stop the Mackenzie Gas Project and to instead establish protected areas in the Mackenzie Region that will be safe from development.

Changing the rules
Parliament will soon be undertaking a review of the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act. There is cause for concern, since the government already used the budget bill to weaken the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act earlier this year. You can be certain that Nature Canada will be working to ensure the review results in a stronger act, not a weaker one.

Back to the lake(s)
The decision about Fish Lake is a good news story, and we hope it does not go down in history as a rare exception. A loophole in the law that protects fish habitat, the Fisheries Act, allows the government to exclude some lakes from the protections of the act and let mining companies use lakes as dumps for toxic mining waste. A handful of lakes has been targeted so far, including Fish Lake in BC and Sandy Pond in Newfoundland and Labrador. We are concerned that this loophole threatens pristine lakes across Canada. Now that Fish Lake has been spared, it’s time to take action on the others.