B.C. Environment Minister George Heyman has begun the NDP government’s overhaul of oversight of resource projects, bringing forward legislation to set up a new superintendent to oversee engineers, biologists, foresters and other professionals who are currently self-governing.
Heyman said the change is required to “restore public trust” in decisions made on natural resource projects.
“The initial stage of implementation would enable the office and its policy, guidance, investigation and enforcement functions and bring key provisions of the act into force, such as whistleblower protection,” Heyman told the legislature Monday.
“During transition these authorities would operate alongside existing governance statutes of five professional regulatory bodies, the agrologists, applied biologists, applied science technologists and technicians, engineers and geoscientists and forestry professionals.”
Changing the law was a key demand of B.C. Green Party MLA Sonia Furstenau, who won election in Cowichan Valley after a protracted battle over a contaminated soil site in an old rock quarry near Shawnigan Lake. No contamination of the lake was ever identified, but the operations lost its licence over technical issues, including provision of financial security in the event of a breach or cleanup.
The changes are a condition of the Greens’ “confidence and supply” agreement to support the NDP government.
“I think we need to rebuild the trust in B.C. in terms of the kinds of decision-making that happens around our resource sector,” Furstenau said.
Heyman said professional organizations are in favour of the change, and it would be a “very, very rare” for the new superintendent to overrule one of the professional organizations.
“We’re streamlining and making more efficient the oversight of the five professions through their regulatory bodies, and ensuring that public expectations of qualification, ongoing professional development, release of information in the public interest and dealing with issues of ethics and conflict of interest are foremost in our legislation,” Heyman said.
The Association of B.C. Forest Professionals issued a statement calling the legislation “a missed opportunity” that doesn’t change environment and land use policies.
The foresters “stressed the need for government to clearly define values, clarify desired results, set objectives and values, and establish a hierarchy of objectives on the landscape,” CEO Christine Gelowitz said. “Without those tools, forest professionals are left trying to balance numerous competing and varied expectations by disparate groups with differing values and competing interests on the land.”
Asked if the additional oversight would have changed anything at Mount Polley mine, where legal actions continue over the failure of a tailings pond dam in 2014, Heyman was cautious.
“Clearly if this legislation and requirements had been in place prior to the Mount Polley incident, and a number of years back, we might have had a different result in terms of the kinds of reports that were issued,” Heyman said. “But frankly that’s speculative on my part.”