Yukon’s environmental review regime is a mess

 In the course of one short week that will impact opportunities for Yukoners throughout the territory for decades to come, the Yukon Environmental and Socio-economic Assessment Board demonstrated its systemic flaws and its lack of capacity

COMMENTARY

by Samson Hartland

In the course of one short week that will impact opportunities for Yukoners throughout the territory for decades to come, the Yukon Environmental and Socio-economic Assessment Board demonstrated its systemic flaws and its lack of capacity to review applications with procedural consistency and clear timelines.

We are referring to two significant projects that would provide Yukon individuals and communities with multi-generational social and economic benefits – the proposed Casino mine near Carmacks and the Northern Cross’ oil-and-gas project in the Dempster-Eagle Plains area. Both companies were referred to an increased level of scrutiny after spending two years of their company’s, and Yukon taxpayer’s resources, in the YESAB process.

That’s two years for YESAB to determine what level of assessment was needed. Two years in which a company could have been contributing the resources it spent on time for the YESAB process and its administrative costs to important community initiatives and environmental baseline research.

Are Yukoners aware that a referral to a panel review does not bring in Outside expertise, as it would have done in the previous Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency process? For YESAB, a panel review is made up of the same individuals on YESAB (three, determined by YESAB itself) who review a project on the YESAB executive committee level.

Yukoners’ hard-earned resources that go in to YESAB’s payroll versus making our Yukon more socially and environmentally strong.

And these are only two examples from this past week – other similar examples unfortunately abound throughout the territory.

The Yukon Chamber of Mines and its membership support a robust environmental and socio-economic assessment process that legislates responsible resource development practices: we too live here; we raise our families here; we treasure our unmatched environmental and cultural values.

As such, we are committed to playing our part in the process by ensuring adequacy of information is provided to YESAB and other regulators in a comprehensive and timely manner.

However, YESAB desperately needs improvements in the areas of efficiency, consistency and procedural fairness when reviewing applications if there is to be any certainty for proponents, for individuals, for investors and for governments and if there is to be any public trust in the YESAB process.

All Yukoners will suffer from last week’s announcements, which demonstrated the YESAB board’s lack of capacity and inability to determine a project’s scope and therefore, the assessment level it requires (before spending two years in the process).

If Yukoners only associate YESAB with mining, may we remind you of a YESAB decision that gravely impacted our territory’s tourism industry, which is a foundational pillar of our territory’s economy?

According to a report by CBC North, cruise ship “giant” Holland America announced in April 2012 it would be pulling the “Yukon Queen II out of the Yukon River for good” in Dawson City. The executive vice-president of Holland America (now Holland America-Princess) at the time stated that with the departure of the boat, the company had to be less invested in Dawson City and “the assessment process [YESAB] was one of the reasons for the (company’s) decision to remove the boat.”

YESAB had been reviewing the Yukon Queen II application for two years.

Four years later, the Westmark Klondike Inn (now The Day’s Inn) and most recently, the Westmark Whitehorse have been sold. Investment in the Yukon – across all sectors – continues to decrease. The Westmark Beaver Creek is shuttered, which had significant impact on that community, as well as Burwash Landing, Destruction Bay and Haines Junction.

What the Yukon Chamber of Mines and its membership hope can resonate with Yukoners that are not directly employed by the mineral exploration and development industry and the service and suppliers, which support its efforts, is that all individuals, industries and investment require certainty surrounding the parameters required when entering the YESAA process.

YESAB needs skilled, competent administration in order to review applications effectively and efficiently to the benefit of all Yukoners and our environment.

As a matter of history, YESAB was born out of the Umbrella Final Agreement. YESAB worked well upon its enactment in 2003 following Yukon’s devolution from Canada and was considered across the country at that time as “groundbreaking legislation” and a hallmark of certainty, responsibility and fair process.

However, the past five years have been one of deteriorating process, a lack of certainty and “moving goal posts.” That is not good for Yukoners.

We, as Yukon residents, employers and employees, are suffering from the interpretation of legislation by a few individuals that was created to reflect the spirit, intent and vision of the UFA for a review process that reflects our shared values. We hope for a Yukon development assessment process that can provide opportunities for our children and for our grandchildren.

What we are asking for is a fair, transparent, and efficient process where the ground rules, expectations, and timelines are clear for proponents across all sectors upon entering a review through to evaluation and issuance of a decision document. In the coming weeks, the chamber of mines will be raising its concerns with all orders of government and seeking solutions to ensure that review timelines and procedural fairness are upheld.

If our territory is to rely on anything further than transfer payments from the federal government, we must all work together for a YESAB that is procedurally fair, administratively sound and clear for any proponent – from mining to energy to tourism – before they enter the review process.

A YESAB that protects all Yukoners and the values we share and work together to uphold. Samson Hartland is executive director of the Yukon Chamber of Mines.

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