Manitoba Hydro asks province to relax environmental requirements during COVID-19 pandemic

Manitoba Hydro has asked the province to relax some of its environmental requirements during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Bird habitat-monitoring along Bipole III may be cancelled this year

Manitoba Hydro has asked permission to relax some environmental licensing during the pandemic. (CBC)

Manitoba Hydro has asked the province to relax some of its environmental requirements during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Crown corporation wants provincial environmental officials to approve "some changes in requirements due to COVID-19 under environmental licensing for certain low-risk elements of projects," Manitoba Conservation and Climate said in a statement.

The province did not disclose what those projects entail or provide detail on the proposed changes to the environmental work.

Manitoba Hydro is reviewing what it describes as "non-critical environmental monitoring planned for the immediate future," according to a statement from Bruce Owen, a spokesperson for the Crown corporation.

This review includes a decision about whether to proceed with bird-habitat monitoring along the Bipole III transmission line.

"The pandemic has introduced some challenges with respect to travel restrictions, physical distancing and limited accommodations in remote areas, particularly in northern Manitoba," Owen said.

Manitoba Hydro, however, is exempt from restrictions preventing most travel to northern Manitoba.

As well, environmental work is deemed an essential service during the pandemic, according to the public health order issued by Dr. Brent Roussin, Manitoba's chief public health officer.

Owen said Hydro is aware environmental services are considered essential.

"We felt it necessary to review our activities and see what adjustments could be made to protect the health and safety of our staff, consultants, and the public," he said.

The chestnut-collared longspur is classified as threatened in Manitoba and Saskatchewan, as well as federally and internationally. (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)

Crown Services Minister Jeff Wharton would not say whether Hydro will continue environmental work during the pandemic.

"It's not business as usual anywhere across Manitoba right now," Wharton said Thursday during a conference call with reporters.

Bird-habitat monitoring is usually conducted during the spring migratory period and is less effective at other times of year, including the summer, said Jim Duncan, a retired provincial biologist.

Missing a year of data would not destroy long-term studies of birds along the transmission line, but would degrade the quality of the data set, especially when rare birds are involved, Duncan said.

Bird habitat can be monitored without sending people into the field, he added. Automated recording units can capture birdsong, he said.

Conservation and Climate says it is reviewing Hydro's request to change its environmental licensing.

Hydro has not cancelled other forms of environmental work and is still meeting all of its regulatory requirements, Owen said.

The utility "still has environmental staff actively conducting inspection and environmental monitoring, for example at Keeyask and the Manitoba-Minnesota Transmission Project," he said.