Monday, November 1, 2004 Link To Herald The Halifax Herald Limited

N.S. lax on green-law policing, study finds
Report urges more cash, training for environment inspectors

By MURRAY BREWSTER / The Canadian Press

The competency, training and funding of Nova Scotia's environment inspectors has been called into question by a scathing new report that looks into how the province handled repeated complaints about a Cape Breton sewage lagoon.

It is the second time in two years that an independent report has questioned whether staff at the provincial Environment Department understand the laws they're supposed to enforce.

"Staff we met was inadequately trained on technical and legal issues to deal with this file effectively," said the latest study, which was handed to Environment Minister Kerry Morash last week.

The review, prepared by two experts, said there is an "apparent lack of basic understanding of the legal framework" among the inspectors who handled the sewage case.

As well, there is a "limited understanding of the powers and protections" of the provincial Environment Act, the report said.

Indeed, the important distinction between forcing a polluter to follow a department order and asking for voluntary compliance also seemed lost on the environment staff, the report says.

The study was authored by Meinhard Doelle of Dalhousie University, and Tom Austin of ABL Environmental Consultants.

Morash, who said he had yet to read the report, defended his staff.

"We'll look at the report and look at improving," he said.

"We have good staff. I think we have excellent staff. There's always opportunities for additional training."

A copy of the review, obtained by The Canadian Press, fired indirect criticism at the Conservative government by suggesting the inspection branch is under-funded.

Inspectors decide what to investigate based on the "time and resources required to address issues, rather than an objective assessment" of the case and its impact on the environment.

Morash asked for the study after residents in the Middle River area of Cape Breton repeatedly complained in 2002 about an overflowing sewage lagoon that contaminated a nearby brook, which some people used to supply drinking water.

The former owner of the operation pleaded guilty to charges under the Environment Act in January 2004. George's Vacuum Services was fined $2,500.

In 2002, a report into a separate environmental controversy at Balzer's bog in the Annapolis Valley also questioned whether inspectors understood and properly applied the law.

At the time, former environment minister David Morse admitted there needed to be more co-ordination among the province's 70 inspectors.

The Opposition New Democrats were alarmed by the latest report, saying it points to the need for an overhaul of the Environment Department.

"Their No. 1 priority is supposed to be protecting our environment and our health," said NDP environment critic Joan Massey.

"If people need better training and more resources, then you need to own up to that. If you're spreading yourself too thin, then that needs to be admitted."