How about an environmental action plan?

Expected economic stimulation comes at a dire hidden cost

Canada’s economic action plan is in full swing, with signs appearing everywhere to alert us of impending bicycle paths, highway improvements and other infrastructure developments.

Unfortunately, the expected economic stimulation comes at a dire hidden cost. Behind the scenes, the government has decided that the best way to expedite development is to gut environmental assessment. After announcing $12 billion in spending towards new infrastructure projects, the government (quietly) announced that 90 per cent of federal environmental assessments were to be cancelled.

Environmental assessment (EA) is the process whereby projects are evaluated for their environmental and social impacts, taking into account the present and future well-being of land, water, wildlife and people in affected areas.

EA has been in place federally for 18 years, and is essential for preventing mitigating damage to the environment and human health. It allows us to ensure that projects are sustainable. Plus, it provides thousands of permanent jobs in government sectors, and thousands more in the private firms that carry out environmental impact assessments.

The federal government has justified the slash by contending that provincial assessments will still be carried out.

However, provinces can’t be relied upon to do it themselves. Legislation differs in every jurisdiction and is often piecemeal. Efforts are being made to reduce project approval times by up to 12 months, resulting in shoddy and incomplete assessments.

More and more projects are being exempted from the process entirely, especially in booming provinces such as Alberta. Provinces and municipalities alike are using the same rhetoric, seeking “streamline” EA processes.

What was the aim of removing environmental assessments designed to prevent the loss of wildlife, water pollution, and the collapse of communities? Job creation. Canada’s job market has rebounded, with 75 per cent of job losses during the recession regained.

At least we know where the job market of 2030 will be: cleaning the poison from these projects out of our lakes and soils.

Yet, the unemployment rate has remained stable in recent months, at 8.1 per cent, and has actually risen 1.8 per cent since July 2009.

It isn’t the action plan bringing the gains, not in the midst of allegations that by the end of 2009, only 12 per cent of the projects had actually been started. How many of those signs around Winnipeg have been accompanied by actual construction? Certainly none of the bicycle paths.

Where jobs have been created, many (and in some months, the majority) were temporary work rather than full-time positions.

The government seems to think that hiring someone to listen for bird calls and hiring someone to hold a highway sign are mutually exclusive. In the past, environmental assessments allowed for both, and now one of the two is unemployed - and it isn’t the temporary construction laborer. This sort of economy-versus-environment thinking is outmoded, unsustainable and just plain wrong.

Rather than destroy the vanguard of environmental protection, more resources could have been put into getting the assessments done, allowing for environmental firms to grow and new infrastructure projects to begin. One government slogan for the action plan is “Building infrastructure to create jobs.” Perhaps they meant “Building hasty, unsustainable infrastructure to create part-time and temporary jobs.”

The situation isn’t entirely bleak. Of the $15 billion spent, $165 million (less than 0.1 per cent of the total) is for environmental remediation activity, to rehabilitate areas contaminated by industrial pollutants. Some money is being spent on bicycle paths and other small, “green” projects.

In the meantime, the flurry of unassessed construction will ensure a steady supply of new contaminated sites.

At least we know where the job market of 2030 will be: cleaning the poison from these projects out of our lakes and soils.

Alana Westwood is an evening-and-weekend philosopher who likes to have her cake and eat it too.

Published in Volume 64, Number 27 of The Uniter (June 30, 2010)

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