Point of View

Is it time to stop relying on professional reliance?

B.C.'s system of using independent qualified professionals in environmental assessments, instead of civil servants, is coming under criticism from people in Shawnigan Lake, where an old quarry that's been accepting contaminated soil has been the focus of local protests and court challenges.
A controversial soil dump site, near Shawnigan Lake, B.C. (Megan Thomas/CBC)

In the old days, when someone wanted to start a mine, or cut down trees beside a river, or store contaminated soil in an old quarry, the province would use its own staff to assess the environmental risks of the proposed development.

But for the last decade, B.C. has relied less on civil servants and more on independent qualified professionals who are hired by the people who want to build.

This new system is called professional reliance and it has a growing number of people in B.C. worried.

Calvin Sandborn is the Legal Director of the Environmental Law Centre at the University of Victoria. (University of Victoria)

That is certainly the case in Shawnigan Lake, where local residents have fought against the operators of an old quarry that's been accepting contaminated soil.

The quarry is located in the watershed of a community with 12,000 people. And, locals worry it could contaminate their water.

Through the Shawnigan Residents' Association and the Cowichan Valley Regional District, they tried to have the project rejected before it was opened, in the environmental assessment stage.

Then, after it received approval and started receiving contaminated soil, they went to court.

In January, B.C. Supreme Court Justice Robert Sewell stayed a provincial government permit that allowed Cobble Hill Holdings to receive and store up to 100,000 tonnes of soil a year.

He concluded the private engineering company that was hired as the technical consultant for the operators was a co-owner of the operation, or at least had an agreement with the proponent to become a co-owner.

B.C. Environment Minister Mary Polak. (CBC)

For Calvin Sandborn, at the University of Victoria's Environmental Law Centre, the Shawnigan case highlights some of the shortcomings of B.C.'s professional reliance model.

"Our point is that you need independent, objective people making decisions about environmental protection and public health."

Sandborn said this is not the only case where contentious decisions have been made by qualified professionals who were hired by developers.

Whether it's geo-technical inspections of mine sites, riparian inspections along streams in forests, or a review of potential impact on drinking water sources, Sandborn said less and less field work is now done by civil servants.

He cites the location of septic systems as an example, where provincial officials used to go out and examine sites.

B.C. is now the only jurisdiction in North America, Sandborn said, that relies on consultants who are hired by the proponents to certify that a location is acceptable.

Sonia Furstenau (standing beside Green Party leader Andrew Weaver) is a Green candidate in the upcoming provincial election. (Richard Zussman/CBC News)

Province has no plans to change

Despite the concerns, Environment Minister Mary Polak has no plans to review B.C.'s environmental assessment process or professional reliance.

She told me the Shawnigan Lake case is troubling but it is simply an isolated incident.

This "isn't a weakness in the existing rules," she said. "This is a result of people going around the existing rules."

Polak insisted the qualified professionals are not conducting the assessments. "The staff at the ministry conduct the assessments. What the qualified professionals do is provide independent testing in their various fields."

But one of the Shawnigan Lake residents who led the fight against the contaminated soil site sees professional reliance differently.

A contaminated soil site, near Shawnigan Lake. (Megan Thomas/CBC)

Sonia Furstenau is a director with the Cowichan Valley Regional District and the local Green candidate in May's provincial election.

"The professional reliance model invites this kind of conflict of interest," she told me. "When we're looking at instances where you have drinking water at risk, or serious environmental issues. We should not be relying entirely on industry for the assessment of risks."

Furstenau is not the only one to raise concerns about professional reliance.

Former B.C. Ombudsperson Kim Carter reviewed the system in 2014, and wrote "the potential for administrative unfairness arises when there is inadequate government oversight of private professionals and project proponents or the level of public accountability for their actions and decisions falls below acceptable standards."

In Shawnigan Lake, the environment minister has held the quarry operator accountable by canceling its permit.

But it is not yet clear if the province will require the operator to remove the contaminated soil, nor is it clear the company even has enough money to do that.

Many people in Shawnigan Lake have pledged to continue fighting until all of that soil has been removed, and are still questioning the system that allowed it to be put there in the first place.

About the Author

Gregor Craigie

@GregorCraigie

Gregor Craigie is the host of On The Island on CBC Radio One in Victoria. Past journalistic lives include reading the news at the BBC World Service, political reporting on TV, and freelancing in Asia.