Province's monitoring of environmentally sensitive projects 'troubling,' AG says

The Environment Department approved nearly all — 53 of 54 — applications between 2013 and 2016.

'In too many cases, terms and conditions on project approvals are not monitored or evaluated'

Nova Scotia Auditor General Michael Pickup. (CBC)

Nova Scotia's auditor general says the province needs to do a better job of following up on the environmental assessments it approves. And it approves a lot of applications.

Between 2013 and 2016, the Environment Department gave the green light to 53 of 54 projects presented for an environmental assessment.

"The Environment's [Department] monitoring of the terms and conditions on these approved projects was poor," Michael Pickup said at a news conference Wednesday. "It is troubling."

His office examined about half of the projects, 22 in total.

There were about 675 terms and conditions attached to the projects. In addition, auditors found some terms and conditions did not contain important details, such as deadlines and reporting requirements.

In July, the province suspended the environmental assessment of a proposed expansion of a quarry in Colchester County. (CBC)

'A rubber stamp'

Mark Butler, policy director at the Ecology Action Centre, said he was particularly struck by the number of projects that have been given environmental approval.

"Basically that means the environmental assessment process, from my take, is a rubber stamp. So then the conditions become really important. Because if you don't follow through on the conditions that are set, then what's the point at all?"

Nova Scotians — particularly those who live near approved projects — should be concerned about the issues raised in the report, Butler said.

Mark Butler, policy director at the Ecology Action Centre in Halifax, says Nova Scotians should be concerned about the findings of auditor general's report on environmental assessment approvals. (CBC)

"This means a lot to you. It means a lot to your health. It means a lot to your property values. What's the impact going to be on the surrounding environment?" Butler asked.

Terms and conditions attached to projects can be numerous and wide-ranging, including "groundwater surveys or wildlife monitoring," Pickup said. Archeological considerations, erosion and sediment control plans as well as a reclamation plan for future land use are other common conditions.

"If you're not checking … how do you know they are being met? Overall, it is a pretty significant deficiency. The department acknowledged that this is an issue," Pickup said.

He suggested that the government's public accounts committee look into the matter and that elected officials "hold the government accountable."

Tim Houston, Conservative MLA for Pictou East, said the auditor general's report calls the whole environmental approval process into question.

"There's just too many things that aren't being done, particularly around followups and monitoring. It's just not happening. We shouldn't really be surprised it something bad happens if we're not watching."

Tim Houston, Conservative MLA for Pictou East, said he's concerned about how thoroughly projects are scrutinized by the Environment Department. (CBC)

Houston said he's also concerned about how thoroughly projects are scrutinized before they get the go-ahead.

"What we've learned today is that basically all projects are getting approved. 53 out of 54 projects are being approved and some of them are very contentious."

Pickup also noted the last report on the risks of climate change is now 12 years old and a new one is needed.

"New plans and actions are needed and they need to  be shared with the public."

Below-average completion rate

Nearly half the recommendations made by the auditor general in the past 10 years to the Environment Department have not been completed, even though they've been accepted by the government, the report also said.

Pickup compared the Environment Department's completion rate with a 72 per cent government-wide rate.

"I am not happy with the level of completion. I don't think it is great performance."

Environment Minister Iain Rankin said his department is committed to doing better and would implement the rest of the recommendations within two years.

The department has a new computer system that helps staff track environmental assessment approvals, alerting inspectors when inspections and audits are to be conducted, and when certain conditions are due to be met, he said.

Nova Scotia Environment Minister Iain Rankin said a new computer system is helping to improve the government's monitoring of environmentally sensitive projects. (CBC)

But if Rankin knew why all of the work wasn't being performed, he wasn't saying on Wednesday.

"Staff are out there working hard. Followup is obviously something that was recommended in this report and we are committed to improving that followup process."

Rankin said he's been willing to take action any time he was presented with evidence of an infraction or violation of an approval's terms and conditions. Improvements will mean any problems in the future will be flagged, said the minister.

"These are good recommendations and I expect the department to address them."

However, Pickup said the system is only as good as the people contributing to it.

"If you are not entering information into electronic systems, then I'm left to wonder why."

Rankin also said the Environment Department reports annually on key climate change actions and will address future impacts of climate change every two years. He said if the public feels like it needs more information about what's happening, he's willing to consider that request.

With files from Michael Gorman