Brison Hears Urgency Note

Federal minister keeps his cool under heat to fast-track cleanup
The Issue: Minister Lobbied During Visit
Cape Breton Post Editorial
Sat., Nov. 13, 2004

Cape Bretoners, with their historically jaundiced view of government, are inclined to believe that the loose practices described at the Gomery inquiry into the sponsorship scandal, where rules are made to be ignored, is typical. It isn't. In fact, bureaucratic processes today are constrained, like Gulliver among the Lilliputians, by a thousand threads of law, procedure and precedence.

So when Scott Brison says he doesn't know what sort of environmental assessment will be applied to the Sydney cleanup, he has to be telling the truth. It is literally not possible for him to know because he does not yet have the document on which that judgment is to be passed, and it is not his call (though he is a government minister, which counts).

However, the federal minister of public works and government services, if he were a betting man, would put his chips on a full panel review under the Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency. Brison won't say that, but it seems no one who engaged him on the subject during his visit to Sydney on Friday came away with any doubt that this minister expects the full panel and is prepared to defend it when it comes.

The importance of this issue is artificially magnified by the fact that at the moment there isn't much else to argue about - and when it comes to the cleanup, we do like to argue. The implementing body, the province's Sydney Tar Ponds Agency, is still working with a consultant on the detailed project description, based on the $400 million federal-provincial agreement unveiled in May. When it's finished in a month or so the document will be submitted to Ottawa for a ruling on what sort of assessment is required.

The choice, we have long been told, is between a comprehensive study and a more arm's-length independent panel review. There's actually a first option called screening, short of the comprehensive study, which has scarcely been mentioned for years but suddenly is being promoted.

Sydney Tar Ponds Agency and groups associated with its position, such as the Sydney and Area Chamber of Commerce, have been pushing to avoid the full panel review on the grounds that it's the longest process, the one fraught with most risk of delay and cost escalation, and the one that will bestow the most opportunity on perennial critics of the cleanup process - that is to say, Sierra Club of Canada - to make mischief as a government-funded intervener.

Sierra Club, in a quarter-page ad in this newspaper to mark Brison's visit, reiterated its position that only the full-panel review would be adequate.

On Friday it was apparent that Brison is coolly resisting the local and provincial pressure to commit to what is promoted as the fast-track approach to federal environmental approval of the cleanup main event. He notes that the choice of assessment method must be legally sound, and argues that it would be damaging to the project, the community and Canada's environmental reputation if the government adopted a process that was challenged in court and shown to be deficient. It goes without saying that anything short of the full panel would be challenged.

Brison argues further that the risk of delay and cost escalation through the full-panel approach has been exaggerated, and notes that several major components of the cleanup - excavating the tar cell, stream diversion, and a coffer dam - can all proceed while environmental assessment is underway.

The visit was far from a total loss for the start-the-bulldozers lobby. Brison felt the community's sense of urgency and impatience, prompting him to emphasize repeatedly that terms of reference and timelines can be written to discipline any process, including a full-panel review. He sounded eager to do that, which is all he could reasonably promise.