Weak environmental protections a result of B.C. Liberal cuts

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Darryl Dyck/The Canadian Press First Nations canoes paddle on the waters of Burrard Inlet to the Kinder Morgan Burnaby Terminal of the Trans Mountain pipeline, in North Vancouver, B.C., on September 1, 2012.

A decade of cuts has led British Columbia down a path where government staff now question the province’s ability to prevent and respond to environmental disasters.

An internal Ministry of Environment email – raised in the legislature this week by NDP environment critic Spencer Chandra Herbert – says staff “could point to hundreds of spills on [an] annual basis where gaps occurred or improvements are needed,” but don’t have the resources to compile such a report.

The contents of the email, first reported by Metro, caused Environment Minister Mary Polak to admit B.C.’s land-based spill response plan and polluter-pay model “isn’t strong enough.

Bill Wareham, science project manager at the David Suzuki Foundation, said he isn’t surprised.

“It’s a trajectory we’ve been on for a decade now,” said Wareham on Tuesday. “There is so much evidence, it’s hard to sweep things under the carpet nowadays. It’s better to say you recognize this is an issue.”

In its efforts to cut corporate red tape, promote resource industries and show fiscal restraint, Wareham says the B.C. Liberals have let environmental protection slide.

Ministry of Environment budgets have been slashed by as much as 25 per cent and the number of government scientists has been reduced by as much as one-third, Chandra Herbert figures.

That has resulted in fewer staff on the ground, softer environmental regulations and has allowed companies to operate with a higher level of risk to create “a new baseline of pollution”, according to Wareham.

“That’s the new normal. That might be good for business … but it’s not a responsible approach,” he said. “We’d like to see government invest in the mitigation of risk.”

Polak said the province is spending the next year to develop a new land-based spill response plan to address gaps, but also expects industry to take a greater role.

Wareham said more involvement from industry is fine, as long as there are strong regulations and “troops on the ground” in place to enforce those regulations.

“Companies operate to the extent of the law. They don’t invest [more in mitigation] because they don’t have to,” he said. “Government should be setting the regulatory requirements so it’s more clear what the responsibilities are.”

Polak said Monday that government is attempting to “address the need for more human resources” by integrating staff at related ministries, such the Ministry of Forests, Land and Natural Resource Operations.

“That means bringing together all the resources they have together with our conservation officers service and our compliance and enforcement branch, so they can operate interchangeably,” she said. “That will help us in the meantime while we’re working on all the policy and regulatory matters.”