Review Type In Dispute
Jockeying continues over approach for assessing the Sydney cleanup
The Issue: Announcement Coming Next Week
Cape Breton Post Editorial
Sat., May 29, 2004
The last word for this week in the crossfire between
communications advisers is that the selection of a process for
environmental assessment of the Sydney cleanup is a
matter of legislative application, not public discussion.
That's the line from Gordon Harris of the Canadian Environmental
Assessment Agency, who makes the matter sound almost
quasi-judicial, above politics. For something that's not political,
there's an awful lot of politicking going on.
Harris, the federal agency guy, appeared to contradict that other
communications adviser, Parker Donham, the provincial
agency guy, who insists that Nova Scotia officials have been
assured from high levels in Ottawa that the community will have
a voice in choosing "the appropriate level of assessment." No, said
Harris, the public will be consulted on the scope of assessment
once the type of assessment is selected.
Some of this difference may be semantic, but clearly there is a
real struggle going on over the shape of the environmental assessment
that has to happen before the big cleanup goes ahead. We can
put aside any notion that there's a way around this, or that it's a
surprise. The Canadian Environmental Assessment Act is triggered
in a number of ways by this project. That means there has to
be an assessment process under the act. That was understood from
the beginning. The dispute is over which of several options should
be invoked - the most elaborate being a full panel review.
Sydney Tar Ponds Agency, representing the province, is
adamant that the full panel is unnecessary, given the extensive and
lengthy public participation process represented by the seven-year
Joint Action Group exercise. Donham, speaking for the agency,
draws heavily on public apprehension that too elaborate an assessment
process could tie up the project for years more.
Public impatience is real and Donham is shrewd to tap it. But in
addition, there is a valid fear that commitments such as represented
in the $400 million federal-provincial memorandum signed
in Sydney 21/2 weeks ago could slip with a prolonged delay.
Governments change and momentum can be lost, and costs have a way of
escalating simply through the passage of time.
Elizabeth May of the Sierra Club, the environmental group
pressing for the panel review, insists the process need not mess up
the timeline outlined on May 12 if strict deadlines are imposed.
There is another risk in going the more elaborate route, however.
Of all the approaches, the full panel would seem to be the one
most likely to compel significant revisions in the plan as outlined
in the joint announcement. That might not happen, but it could,
meaning more time for design and engineering, and higher cost.
The memorandum tries to anticipate additional requirements
that could come out of an environmental assessment. There will
surely be some. But how much revision and additional cost could
the agreement accommodate before the project would stall awaiting
renewed government funding approval and even cost redesign?
All are agreed that the environmental assessment should not,
and need not, unduly delay the 2006 start of the major cleanup.
Let's nail that to the barn door as agreed-upon Rule No. 1. If respect
for the schedule can credibly be assured, then the province's chief
stated argument against full panel review falls away. That being
the case, there'd be no compelling reason not to call upon the
cleanup project proponents to defend their choices in a rigourous
open forum. There is no validity in representing this last hurdle to
the cleanup, on the table from the beginning, as some frivolous
bureaucratic intrusion. No one holds a monopoly on defining
where the public interest now lies. Everyone wants to get it right.