new dog old tricks

A government responsible for overseeing environmental assessments really shouldn't play fast-and-loose with the laws it's sworn to uphold. It undermines the system's credibility.

A government responsible for overseeing environmental assessments really shouldn’t play fast-and-loose with the laws it’s sworn to uphold.

It undermines the system’s credibility.

Unfortunately, that’s precisely what Darrell Pasloski’s Yukon Party has done.

Last week, his election team rammed through construction of the new FH Collins Secondary School before it had the necessary approval of the Yukon Environmental Socio-economic Assessment Board.

This isn’t kosher.

The project may be important, but the board still has to do its assessment and issue a decision before construction can begin, said Jennifer Anthony, the board’s Whitehorse manager.

That is, the system has to be respected.

Bollocks, said Pasloski’s crew.

Wanting a sod-turning photo op on the cusp of an election, the Yukon Party pushed ahead with the project anyway, started to install the utilities and, in the process, broke the law.

And that triggered a stern letter from the assessment board.

“It is our view that moving forward with utility installation prior to the issuance of a decision document would presuppose the outcome of the assessment,” Monique Chatterton wrote in a two-page letter to the government.

The assessment board is wrong, said Highways and Public Works spokesperson Doris Wurfbaum.

This allowed the politicians to mug for the cameras, providing art for political flyers.

Also, with no fanfare whatsoever, the government also cut a much-ballyhooed geothermal heating system from the project.

It would have saved the government money on heating costs over the coming decades.

But it would have required a more rigorous environmental review by the board.

So it was jettisoned, cut from the plan.

Now, imagine trying to put a geothermal system – tapping heat buried deep in the ground beneath the school – back into the project after it has started construction.

Does that sound plausible? No.

Does it sound responsible?

“It’s our intention to pursue geothermal here in the school, if it makes sense,” said Education Minister Patrick Rouble at last week’s political event with Pasloski.

Don’t expect to ever see geothermal in the school.

The larger issues are more troubling.

First, this provides some evidence the departmental processes are being meddled with to facilitate electioneering on Pasloski’s behalf.

That is why Public Works – to fast-track a long-delayed, politically sensitive project before an election – is insisting its interpretation of the Yukon Environmental Socio-economic Assessment Act is more correct than the board’s. It should be noted the board is responsible for interpreting the law on a daily basis. By challenging it in this way, the Pasloski crew has kneecapped the board. After all, if it can’t get this right, then how can the public have any faith in its decisions?

So, you can see how this is a dangerous place for a government to go.

It is responsible for enforcing the act.

The board is already anemic. It simply interprets the law and makes recommendations – it is the government that decides whether it will follow those recommendations, or not.

When the government unilaterally decides whether the process applies, or not, what message does that send?

If pushing ahead with the FH utilities before an assessment is OK, what happens when Western Copper decides it must fast-track its open-pit mine to beat winter deadlines?

Does it get to hook up utilities before its assessment is done?

And what does that do to the authority of the assessment board? Can it still reject the application after the company has been allowed, by the government, to spend $100,000 preparing the site?

Might that erode the government’s credibility in assessing the board’s recommendations once they are delivered?

The rules are in place for a reason. Environmental assessments are important.

They tell citizens that all aspects of a project’s potential impact have been considered before it proceeds, or not. It reassures people.

So what does it say about the system when the rules can an be summarily tossed aside when a politician demands a photograph?

What does that say about a government’s commitment to the law? To the environment?

And what does it say about the politician?