Putting at-risk species further at risk

Activists warn transmission project permits could cause harm

Barb Sweet bsweet@thetelegram.com
Published on June 5, 2014

Permits granted for the Labrador-island transmission link may affect nearly 20 protected and endangered species.

A spokeswoman for Environment and Conservation confirmed it’s the first time such permits have ever been issued.

And that sets a bad precedent, says a Memorial University researcher and wildlife activist.

“These Section 19 waivers reflect poor environmental planning and biodiversity stewardship,” Bill Montevecchi said after reviewing monitoring and mitigation documents provided by The Telegram, and the permits granted for economic activity purposes under the provincial Endangered Species Act in September 2013 and this past March.

In September 2013, a permit to engage in economic activity under Section 19 was issued to Nalcor Energy’s Lower Churchill project for the development of the Labrador-island transmission link: Shoal Cove horizontal direction drill padsite.

The species affected are Fernald’s braya and Long’s braya, a rare plant that grows only on the coastal limestone barrens of the Northern Peninsula and exists nowhere else in the world.

The permit was signed by then environment minister Tom Hedderson.

In March this year, a Section 19  permit to engage in economic activity was issued to NSP Maritime Link Inc. for the Emera Newfoundland and Labrador-Maritime Link project.

Then minister Joan Shea signed off on the waiver which affects 17 species —  American marten, a mammal; false Solomon’s seal, a plant; boreal felt lichen; birds: red crossbill, Barrow’s goldeneye, short-eared owl, ivory gull, piping plover, olive-sided flycatcher, rusty blackbird, red knot, harlequin duck, gray-cheeked thrush, low northern rockcress; and fish: banded killifish, American eel.

“These are actions to serve developmental convenience, and yet again allow development to trump environmental vigilance and integrity,“ said Montevecchi, who could not recall a precedent for such permits being issued.

“The minister can just waive the legislation, and there is no need for it.”

The permits do carry mitigation and monitoring plans, but Montevecchi said they don’t provide any comfort that the best practices will be followed or that there will be precautionary steps taken to protect the vulnerable environments of the endangered species.

For example, he said mitigation measures may include surveys prior to vegetation clearing, with “may” being the key word.

Montevecchi, a member of the Species Status Advisory Committee, said he didn’t know the waivers had been issued. He suggested the mitigation and monitoring plans should include a mandate to conduct comprehensive surveys.

“Emera and Nalcor have funding to do this properly, and we have students, staff and faculty at Memorial University of Newfoundland and Labrador who can expedite such research,” Montevecchi said.

Another wildlife biologist, Ian Goudie, said the government has been lax about the Endangered Species Act for years, and mitigation plans have lost a focus on science.

“How can we take it seriously if (government) doesn’t take its own mandate seriously?” Goudie said.

“My personal opinion is we don’t have enough legal challenges.”

Aside from the permits, Goudie noted that more than a dozen species in the province recommended for protection under the act by the Species Status Advisory Committee were in limbo for years, waiting on ministerial approval, which is supposed to only take three months.

A spokeswoman for Environment and Conservation said the most recent report, not yet posted, shows that eight of 13 species have now received approval. Some others are in final review and one has been sent back to the committee because of new data.