British Columbia

Genstar plan will destroy ecosystem, former government scientist warns

A B.C. scientist who worked for the provincial environment ministry is warning against a large residential development proposed for Mission, B.C., on the Lower Mainland because he says it will destroy the area's unique ecosystem.

Senior biologist says he was muzzled by Campbell government

Former government scientist Marvin Rosenau says he was muzzled by the Campbell government after writing a highly critical report about a Genstar housing development. ((CBC) )

A B.C. scientist who worked for the provincial environment ministry is warning against a large residential development proposed for Mission, B.C., on the Lower Mainland because he says it will destroy the area's unique ecosystem. 

"From California to southern British Columbia, it is the only ecosystem of its type [in an urban area], because of the large run of salmon," said Dr. Marvin Rosenau.

Five years ago, as a senior fisheries biologist for the B.C. government, Rosenau wrote a scathing report about a section of the Genstar development. He has since left government but says he is speaking out now because the project is still in the works.

The initial plan Rosenau reviewed  was to build 100 homes on Silvermere Lake, with the majority of them located on an island. The lake is in the middle of a major salmon run in an area teeming with several species of wildlife.

Silvermere is connected to a much larger proposed Genstar development called Silverdale, which would construct 1,258 new homes on a nearby hillside in a major watershed. Genstar is working toward getting government approval for both projects, with Silverdale to be completed first.

"The scope of this project [Silvermere] is considerably out of line with the environmental and ecological values associated with this particular landscape and the extensive amount of damage it will cause," Rosenau wrote in his 2003 report.

"This project constitutes one of the most environmentally damaging development projects that I have had occasion to review."

Scientist removed after criticizing project

E-mail and other internal government correspondence from September and October 2003 suggests Rosenau was pulled from the project after Genstar complained to the premier and the environment minister about his assessment of its development.

Plans for the Genstar developments include 1,258 new homes in a watershed near a major salmon run. ((CBC) )

On Sept. 24, 2003, two weeks after Rosenau submitted his initial report, Scott Benton, executive director of the environment ministry's regional operations in Victoria, wrote an e-mail to the scientist's superiors.

"Apparently, a memo has surfaced that was authored by Marvin … that Genstar claims damages their ability to proceed," the e-mail said. "They are meeting with the premier and the minister on this, this week. I need some background on this latest development."

In another part of the e-mail, Benton wrote, "Needless to say the angst levels are extremely high regarding this issue."

Rosenau was asked to tone down the report and make revisions.

"This [Silvermere] was the hill to die on," Rosenau said. "This was the one that I was going to throw my body across the train tracks for, because it was worth saving."

On Oct. 31, 2003, it was announced he would be reassigned to another branch in the ministry and would negotiate a secondment to the University of British Columbia. He didn't return to the ministry after his stint at UBC and currently works as a teacher.

Rosenau said he was later told that politicians in the Campbell government wanted him removed from the Genstar project.

"This is what the assistant deputy minister [of environment] said when I got pushed out the door, … 'Marvin, there's nothing wrong with your science. It's just that the eastern Fraser Valley MLAs don't like you. You're gone. We're going to give you what's called a time-out until the next election'."

When asked last week if he remembered meeting with Genstar, Premier Gordon Campbell answered, "No." He said he also didn't remember any criticism from a senior scientist about the development.

Premier doesn't recall meeting developer

"I know nothing about this project, but I'm sure we're not putting anything ahead of the environment," said Campbell.

Premer Gordon Campbell says he doesn't recall anything about the projects. ((CBC) )

Genstar vice-president Dave Keenan declined to be interviewed on camera but told CBC News the Silvermere development is going ahead. The company's consultants are preparing a new environmental assessment to submit to the provincial and federal governments.

"Sometimes, we will be criticized, but that's alright," Keenan said.

The development is part of a massive planned expansion of Mission that would double the population of the community, eventually adding 30,000 new residents. Silverdale, the first large phase of the project, has passed second reading for zoning approval by the District of Mission council and goes to a public hearing on Oct. 21.

A residents' group opposed to both projects, Citizens Against Urban Sprawl Society (CAUSS), accuses the district of trying to ram the Silverdale approval through before the November municipal election.

Cost to environment 'astronomical': residents' group

"This is the biggest development in Western Canada," said spokesperson Tracy Lyster. "It's too big and the implications are too large to take the same little small-town approach that they have done in the past. The cost to us could be astronomical."

Mission resident Tracy Lyster leads a group opposed to the proposed Silverdale and Silvermere developments. ((CBC))

Lyster said residents who live in the Silverdale neighbourhood fear wildlife will be threatened, including bald eagles, deer, black bear, bobcats and several species of owls, some which are already endangered.

Its members are also worried the development will contaminate streams and ground water that provide residents' only current source of fresh water.

"The entire hillside functions as a watershed, and that water feeds the shallow wells of about 3,000 Mission residents," said Lyster.

Sharon Fletcher, director of planning for the District of Mission, said she understands people have legitimate concerns but that the development's environmental impact has been studied sufficiently.

"What I am hearing is the amount of environmental work that's gone into this is more than what anybody's seen on other developments," said Fletcher.

But Rosenau still thinks the whole project should be scaled back.

"It's difficult to have to see ecosystems destroyed that agencies, governments and legislation policy say we are going to protect," he said.

Many families want development: Genstar

Genstar's Keenan said he believes a majority of the residents in Mission now support the project, which he said has had exhaustive study over several years. A survey in 2004, though, showed 33.5  per cent of residents in favour of the development, 42.6 per cent opposed.

Environment Minister Barry Penner says the developments haven't yet been endorsed by his department. ((CBC) )

"Many families in the Silverdale area want the development as soon as possible," Keenan said. "Right now, they have no sewage system, and their school is close to being shut down."

Letters from the provincial environment ministry to the District of Mission show there are still serious concerns among government scientists.

"It is clear this [Silverdale] process is moving forward in the absence of a completed environmental assessment,"  Ross Neuman, the head of the ecosystems section in the ministry's environmental stewardship division, wrote in March of this year.

Rosenau said the Campbell government has created a climate of fear among its scientists. He's stayed in contact with his former colleagues, he said, and many of them are reluctant to seriously criticize any project for fear of losing their jobs.

"To be frank, I walk into my old office, and I say, 'How's it going, guys?' 'Oh,' [they say], 'it's even worse now'," said Rosenau.

"You might muzzle one or two people but then the psychology, … the underlying feeling, by the other staff is, 'Boy if I step out of line, I'm going to get whacked'," Rosenau added.

Environment Minister Barry Penner said the Genstar development would still face several hurdles even if the municipality gives it a green light.

"We have not endorsed this project," said Penner. "If the District of Mission chooses to pursue this project, more detailed environmental work would have to be completed in order for the project to go ahead."

Penner was not the minister when Rosenau wrote his initial report. He refused to comment on why the scientist was removed, saying he can't discuss personnel issues.