Skeptics Greet Timelines

Federal ministers insistent panel can meet strict terms

Cape Breton Post
Tues., May 3, 2005


SYDNEY - It all looks great on paper. The trick will be to keep the environmental assessment of the Sydney cleanup, as announced Monday by the federal government, on track to completion on June 30,2006 a mere 14 months away. Given the unconscionable amounts of time and money spend on Sydney's infamous industrial pollution problem since the early 1980s, with too little result to show, there is deep and justified skepticism that a full panel review can perform as advertised.

However, given the selection of independent panel review over the more tightly managed comprehensive study as the most appropriate way to do the assessment, the federal government has decided on significant precautions to answer the two main concerns about a panel process. Public Works Minister Scott Brison and Environment Minister Stephane Dion did their best to assure Sydney on Monday that the review can be completed on schedule and within the $400 million federal-provincial funding package announced a year ago.

The key, in their mind, is that governments will write explicit terms of reference for the review, including dates and the funding envelope that must be respected, before not after the panel members are appointed in late August. Thus the panel will not set its own deadlines or decide the scope of its mission: government will do that. Panel members who accept appointment will be accepting the task as defined. This is Dion's answer to the objection that federal law gives him no authority to impose deadlines, or indeed cost constraints, on an independent review panel. "The panel will have full independence within the mandate," is the way he puts it.

Is this a guarantee? No, but it is a meaningful and robust response to the two principal concerns that a panel review will delay the cleanup and inflate the cost, possibly to the point where the project stalls indefinitely.

In the legislature Monday afternoon, Public Works Minister Ron Russell said he shared the federal ministers' "determination to hold to strict timelines" but he did not acknowledge the specific strategies they announced to stay on schedule. The Sierra Club's Elizabeth May notes that the lobby that opposed the panel review, because of the risk of delay and runaway cost, had its concerns heard. But nothing in Russell's remarks admitted that the province had gained anything from an aggressively orchestrated campaign to avoid the panel based on concerns of delay and cost.

Now the province finds itself in the delicate position of having argued that a panel process would take too long but that the actual panel process announced doesn't leave enough time. The province does not believe the timelines are "realistic, achievable, or enforceable," Russell told the legislature.

Among other things, the Nova Scotia government is concerned that since the cleanup implementing agency is provincial, missed deadlines no matter how unrealistic they are will be blamed on the province, which has raised such a stink about wasting time. Russell cited the example of the Environmental Impact Statement, which according to the schedule the provincial agency would be responsible to deliver by Dec. 30, a mere three months after government issues guidelines for it, when normally such a document would "take most of a year." However, there is eight months from now to the deadline, and experienced consultants should be able to guess the requirements with reasonable accuracy.

The province has an opportunity to negotiate solutions to realistic and reasonable concerns about the process. But the province's object now should be to join the panel process and help it succeed, not send the cleanup careening into a new round of contention.