Self-evaluating

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You could call it "grading your own paper." Given the chance to give yourself full marks, you probably would.

In late June, Telegram columnist Russell Wangersky wrote about the problems involved with having a provincial government provide oversight on projects it already has a vested interest in, especially projects that same government has a vested interest in succeeding.

The government's own departments, Wangersky pointed out, decide on the environmental sustainability of projects the government is investing in: that happens in offshore oilfields where the province holds stakes, and for certain in megaprojects like Nalcor's Muskrat Falls hydro project, where the province is both the proponent and the environmental watchdog.

After Wangersky's column, we saw an interesting situation where the province's Department of Transportation was charged by the province's own labour officials for violating worker safety provisions.

But perhaps a more interesting case is something that's just arisen outside the province's borders.

Manitoba Hydro - a division of which has been relied on for reviewing the business case for Muskrat Falls - has run into a particular problem with the environmental review for part of its own planned hydroelectric development.

The project in question is the Bipole III transmission system - needed to connect new power facilities to urban areas (sound familiar yet?).

Manitoba's Clean Environment Commission approved the project last week, but teed off on the government, saying, "It would be justifiable for the commission to reject the Environmental Impact Statement as presented and to send (Manitoba Hydro) away to start over."

Why?

Well, here's a brief sampling of the lambasting the project received - including concerns about government self-interest.

- "The site-selection process was flawed by a combination of subjectivity, lack of clarity and false precision."

- "It appears at times from reading the environmental impact study that Manitoba Hydro's approach to environmental assessment of the Bipole III project was not to find potential impacts, but to find ways of showing that there will be no impact."

- "For the most part, it was not a problem of a lack of data. There is much, very good background data. However, there is - throughout the document - little, if any, analysis of the data. As a result, it is often very difficult to determine how a conclusion was reached.

"This led to the impression that the proponent wished only to meet minimum standards."

- "The Commission remains strongly of the view that the practice of environmental assessment in Manitoba must be significantly improved. Having a proponent file an EIS of poor quality, as with the Bipole III Project, must be avoided in future developments."

It's all pretty damning.

Looking at the Muskrat Falls project, you can argue that opponents are finding similar issues: a minimization, for example, of the effect the flooding behind the dam will have on threatened caribou herds. Keep in mind, the Manitoba Clean Environment Agency is arm's length: many Muskrat environmental reviews are being done in-house by the government.

All in all, it raises an interesting question: if the gatekeeper is the one building the project and is giving its full support in the process, who is left minding the store and making sure the work is done right?

Organizations: Manitoba Hydro, Department of Transportation, Clean Environment Commission Manitoba Clean Environment Agency

Geographic location: Muskrat Falls, Manitoba

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