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Environmental assessment reform should be done in the open

Our federal government has been busy rewriting the laws that govern environmental assessments in the Yukon.

Our federal government has been busy rewriting the laws that govern environmental assessments in the Yukon. The territory’s political leaders, meanwhile, have been content to allow this process roll along in complete secrecy, up until the tabling of the proposed changes in the Senate this week.

A long list of people deserve raspberries for this needlessly shady behaviour. At the top of the naughty list are Senator Daniel Lang and MP Ryan Leef, who are supposed to ensure that the interests of Yukoners are represented in Ottawa. Instead, they’ve kept the public out of the loop, other than Leef uttering vague generalities about the forthcoming changes without offering any meaningful specifics. Shame on them.

Shame, too, on Premier Darrell Pasloski and his cabinet colleagues, who were also participants in this skullduggery, which saw industry groups consulted, but conservationists and the public at large completely shut out. Given the Yukon Party’s cozy ties to the federal Conservatives, Pasloski probably had more pull than anybody to bring these talks out into the open. He didn’t. Given the premier’s own penchant for secrecy, can anyone say they are surprised?

Grand Chief Ruth Massie blasted Ottawa this week for not making the changes she expected to see, and is threatening to sue. But Massie and her fellow chiefs were also parties to the pact to keep the broader public in the dark, and so she deserves a share of the blame for what has ensued.

Sadly, First Nation governments are often not much more open with their workings than Harper’s Conservatives, and Massie in this case proves no exception. She’s content to rail against government secrecy in a news release, yet declines an interview to elaborate on these views.

“Where’s the transparency? Where’s the honesty? Where’s the responsibility?” Massie asks in her statement. Where, indeed? Those same questions could easily be thrown back at her. If Massie wanted to take a principled stand on transparency from the start, she could have demanded that these consultations happen out in the open from the start - and refused to co-operate otherwise. She didn’t.

Massie warns that the way that assessment time limits are calculated in the future will lead to “major problems.” But it’s hard to see how that is so. The average time for a designated office review remains well below the new limits. And the more rigorous executive reviews conducted by assessors on big projects to date have also fallen within the new timelines.

Maybe Massie knows something we don’t about this. But if she can’t be bothered to explain herself and qualify her concerns, it’s hard to take her seriously on this point.

Perhaps a more sensible concern with this change is how it takes time limits that are currently set by the board and enshrines them in federal law. In doing so, it removes the assessment board’s discretion to adjust its time limits if needed.

A potentially bigger worry stems from how the changes allows the federal minister to directly set the board’s policy. What’s more, Ottawa could delegate its powers to the territory.

These changes could erode the independence and credibility of the assessment board, as it raises the worry that the territory may curb the vigilance of assessors for the sake of expediency.

This is not totally improbable, when you consider how assessors and territorial officials are currently in a big snit over the government green-lighting a plan to dump mine waste rock into a salmon-bearing river. Under the new rules, the government could simply pass policy that says such matters are not the board’s concern.

Miners have periodically yowled about how assessors force them to hop through too many hoops, and some of the proposed changes seem to address these concerns. Capstone, the owners of Minto mine, have complained about having to undergo fresh reviews whenever it expands its existing mine site. The mine can expect less of this in the future.

But the changes are less cheery for anyone who counts on assessors to help keep honest a territorial government that is largely captured by the interests of industry. Their recommendations are not always accepted by the territory, but they at least create a restraining influence: no politician wants to see an environmental mess unfold under their watch that they had previously been warned about. But the new rules may mean we receive fewer warnings in the future.