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Stephen Harper’s environment watchdog to investigate ‘risks’ of federal budget bill PDF Print E-mail
Justice News
Written by Joan Russow
Sunday, 09 September 2012 20:41
by By Mike De SouzaSeptember 9, 2012

Environment Commissioner Scott Vaughan is investigating the federal Conservatives' policy changes on the environment.

OTTAWA – Parliament’s environment watchdog says he will investigate the “inherent risks” from the Harper government’s overhaul of Canada’s environmental laws.

“This (change to existing laws) wasn’t tinkering,” said Scott Vaughan, the commissioner of the environment and sustainable development, in an interview with Postmedia News.

“This was a wholesale game changer to put in a new regime. And so with any big change, in any regime, in any system, in the private sector, if you go through a huge change, there are inherent risks that are involved.”

The Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency revealed in August that part of the 400-page budget bill, adopted a few weeks earlier in support of the Harper government’s 2012 federal budget, eliminated 2,970 environmental assessments across the country, including hundreds of projects involving fossil fuels or a pipeline.

But Vaughan also recognized that the government was taking a “significant step forward” by introducing new minimum fines and giving Environment Canada enforcement officers new powers to issue them on the site after observing violations.

Environment Minister Peter Kent has been unable to answer questions from Postmedia News about the changes. But his office submitted a 800-word commentary to newspapers in which Kent suggested that Vaughan supported the legislation, and that it would continue to offer environmental protection.

Vaughan distanced himself from those claims, explaining that his audit team would examine impacts and risks of the legislative overhaul that legally reduces federal oversight on industrial projects as well as the government’s capacity to crack down on water pollution.

“So we’ll go back and look how the government is dealing with those risks,” said Vaughan in a wide-ranging interview to discuss his overall mandate.

“And at the end, (we will review) the quality of Canada’s environment. Will it receive the same level of environmental protection as it did in the former regime?”

Kent’s office was unable to say whether the minister had read the commentary before it was submitted to newspapers and published.

But in a previously-tabled statement in Parliament, Kent acknowledged that he didn’t know whether provinces and territories would be able to match the quality of the soon to be cancelled federal assessments.

The minister, a former award-winning broadcast journalist, was also was unable to produce any quotes supporting his commentary’s claim that Vaughan had recommended the 2012 reforms to environmental laws.

The environment commissioner had urged the government, in a 2009 audit, to strengthen the agency’s powers and increase vigilance over developers of small projects with minimal environmental impacts to ensure that they were respecting requirements to mitigate impacts of development.

Although his recommendations have not yet delivered the desired result in this case, Vaughan said that overall, he believes his office helps convince senior government officials to respond to investigations and change practices.

For example, he noted that the government recently delivered new plans to manage human exposure to two toxic substances, lead and mercury, following recommendations from an audit by his office.

Vaughan, appointed as commissioner in 2008 following a lengthy career working on international sustainable development issues for the United Nations, NAFTA and other organizations, said he always offered to meet with former environment ministers, John Baird and Jim Prentice, and briefed them regularly on his reports.

But Vaughan said that Kent has only asked to be briefed about half of the time, and did not ask for a briefing prior to a report last spring on contaminated sites and climate change that prompted the minister to publicly question the commissioner’s credibility.

Vaughan said he had no control about what people say about the reports once they are in the public domain, but added that he believes that most Canadians have confidence in his team, which is part of the auditor general’s office.

“This is one office where Canadians have a great deal of trust and a great deal of confidence,” Vaughan said.

“I’m not political. I’m colour blind when it comes to who I’m talking to with different parliamentarians… I’ll get concerned if I think that parliamentarians are being confused by what our report says or didn’t say.”

He said it would be up to Parliament to decide whether his role needs any additional powers or changes to its mandate. But he also noted that he has not appeared frequently in recent months at parliamentary committees, and suggested that he could offer more information about his reports to MPs and senators whenever they invite him to testify on the sustainable development issues of the day.

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Last Updated on Monday, 10 September 2012 22:57

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