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.