New Brunswick

Cleary uncomfortable with shale gas blueprint

New Brunswick's Chief Medical Officer of Health, Dr. Eilish Cleary, says the province's oil and natural gas blueprint should have included human health as one of its key objectives.

Health officer surprised policy document doesn't include health as a key objective

New Brunswick chief public health officer says the provincial government's oil and natural gas blueprint should have included human health as one of its key objectives.

Energy Minister Craig Leonard released the province's oil and gas roadmap on Thursday that was based on six objectives.

But Dr. Eilish Cleary, the province's chief medical officer of health, said she would have expected a document like that to include human health as a top priority.

"Because health wasn't identified specifically as an objective or a priority, that does leave me with some cause for concern," she said.

Dr. Eilish Cleary says her recommendations for protecting health if a shale gas industry develops still have not been implemented.

"I would question, if we're not bringing in this industry in order to better the lives and the health of the people of this province, well then why would we do it?"

Cleary released her own report in October on how to protect the health of New Brunswickers if a shale gas industry does eventually develop.

"So I would really like to think that in the next version of the document, if there is one, that health was recognized as being first and foremost."

Health Minister Ted Flemming contends Cleary does not need to worry.

"Health is going to be paramount in any development," he said.

Cleary acknowledged to reporters on Friday it's difficult to play her independent role as public health officer, while also advising a government that is encouraging shale gas development.

 "I think I have had to reaffirm my right, my ability to speak. I think it's part of my job," she said.

 Flemming says he has no problem with Cleary's public comments, even if they don't endorse government policy.

 "And I encourage her to do her job as she sees it to be done," he said.

'Organic' document

Leonard said the oil and gas plan is something that will be updated.

"It's going to be an organic document that will change as changes take place in the environment that we're dealing in, whether it's the industry technological advances or we might just find a lot more product than we thought and the industry could potentially expand a lot quicker than we thought," he said.

Cleary says when she thinks of a blueprint she thinks of a technical diagram and expected the province's plan to include specifics about what would happen and when.

"I know that's very important for my work because I'm getting asked some very practical and sensible questions for which I don't yet have the answer," she said.

She adds the suggestion in the government's report that her recommendations have been addressed is incorrect.

"I would say that for virtually all of my recommendations that there is substantive work to be done before we can say that they have been implemented in a satisfactory manner," Cleary said.

EIA process not sufficient

Cleary says New Brunswick cannot depend on the environmental impact assessment to protect the health of citizens of the province.

She says the EIA process is limited when it comes to addressing matters of public health, because it focuses on limiting environmental sources of disease such as pollution levels.

Public health is much more complicated.

"It's about saying how can we, if an industry is being developed, plan to make sure that it not only protects people in this community but also enables them to have a healthier life — so it's a completely different approach."

Cleary says public health is all about planning and she is cautioning the government to take time to think about next steps.

"One of the things that I have been asked by people when I've had the opportunity to talk about this industry is, 'What's the rush?" And I often agree," she said.

"So I think what we need is a plan and things mapped out, time frames, clearer understanding of what's happening when, what would be permitted when and a good process put in place to do that planning."