Environmental calls spike, while B.C.’s conservation officers say they’re short-handed

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 By Dan Fumano, The Province June 10, 2015
Environmental calls spike, while B.C.'s conservation officers say they’re short-handed
The number of environmental violation calls to a government hotline has shot up in recent years while conservation officers say they’re understaffed and struggling “to keep the dike from overflowing.”

Violation categories with the most dramatic increases over the last seven years include calls related to illegal dumping of garbage and sewage, improper handling of pesticides and logging, according to call-volume data obtained by The Province.

The Report All Poachers and Polluters (RAPP) program is a phone and web service for British Columbians to report fisheries, wildlife and environmental violations, as well as human-wildlife conflicts.

A Ministry of Environment spokesman said in an email: “ … We are careful not to read too much into increases in calls as being a sign of more violations occurring, rather that more are being reported now … Increases in call volume are likely a sign of greater awareness of RAPP or changes in policy regarding where government wishes to channel complaints.”

Specifically, the spokesman said the increase in waste-violation calls — the annual number of which doubled between 2008 and 2014 — could be attributed to a policy change centralizing all waste complaints through RAPP, rather than through regional officers.

But NDP environment critic Spencer Chandra Herbert doesn’t accept that explanation, and says conservation officers tell him they’re understaffed and stretched too thin.

“Conservation officers are … our police officers for the environment,” said Chandra Herbert. “Our environment, to a large extent, is our economy. If you’re not taking care of it, you lose that value … People are very passionate in B.C. about protecting our environment, but that’s also because it’s good for our economy.

“Our provincial motto is ‘Splendour Without Diminishment,’ yet there’s a whole bunch of diminishment going on, and nobody’s standing up for the splendour.”

RAPP call volume has remained relatively stable in some categories traditionally associated with the Conservation Officer Service (COS), like fisheries violations and wildlife conflicts. But call numbers rose sharply in other areas, especially environmental violations involving waste, pesticide, forestry and the Wildlife Act. That speaks to the expanded mandate of COS, which is required to handle an ever-increasing range of calls, said one veteran officer.

“We’re just so short-handed, it’s unbelievable,” said the conservation officer, who didn’t want to be identified for fear of losing his job. “Here we are just trying to keep the dike from overflowing.

“We need equipment, we need training for officer safety and they’re spending $150,000 on a Yoga Day,” he said, referring to provincial government spending for an upcoming Yoga Day event on Vancouver’s Burrard Street Bridge. “It’s like, really? It’s demoralizing to the wholeservice.”

Last month, in the legislature, Chandra Herbert read out a statement from the Society of B.C. Conservation Officers, saying inadequate staffing levels are “resulting in higher caseloads, slower response times and/or no response at all. Our motto used to be ‘Any time, anywhere.’ Now it is ‘Sometimes, maybe.’ We need more boots on the ground.”

dfumano@theprovince.com