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Russell Wangersky: Environmental protection — mandatory or optional?

Berm under construction at the Health Sciences Centre in St. John’s, June 28.
Berm under construction at the Health Sciences Centre in St. John’s, June 28.

Seriously: what’s the point of environmental assessment legislation if even government agencies don’t seem to have to live up to it? This is a story of a stream, rain, a hospital, and what happens as a combination of all three could mean serious flooding.

Russell Wangersky

Eastern Health wants to protect the Health Sciences Centre (HSC) from Leary’s Brook and Leary’s Brook Pond with a new earth berm anywhere from four metres to 10 metres wide.

Is the berm needed? Yes. Changes in peak rainfall and flooding due to manmade changes in the watershed that flows into the brook mean peak flood levels that could possibly reach the hospital, and could certainly flood hospital utility tunnels.

A report on the project says flooding puts “the HSC at risk of inundation.”

The report was done because the law in this province requires projects to meet environmental standards.

But there seems to be holes in that particular process.

The project was registered on April 12. The registration documents pointed out that the work would need to start by June 1, which shouldn’t have been a problem, because the minister responsible for the assessment rules, Municipal Affairs and Environment Minister Eddie Joyce, was required by the act to provide a decision by May 27.

He didn’t. He didn’t have an answer on May 28 or May 29, either.

The minister finally announced a decision on June 29. He’d sent a letter to Eastern Health on June 23 saying that a further environmental step — an environmental preview report — was needed, one that would show the berm would change flood patterns in the area.

The letter said, “Please be aware that other government agencies may not issue any relevant authorizations until a decision on the project is rendered by the minister” and “Please be reminded that, in accordance with the Environmental Protection Act, project activities may not proceed until the proposal is released from the Environmental Assessment Process.”

Strong words.
But on the very day the minister released his letter, a construction crew was building one end of the berm, just as they had been for days. There was an armour stone retaining wall being built almost to the water’s edge, with excavators trundling back and forth with stone and huge sandbags and earth, just as they’ve been doing for weeks now.

Perhaps the provincial Environment Department didn’t notice that the project had started. I asked them about it on Monday morning. On Tuesday, the crews were still hard at work.

On Wednesday afternoon, the provincial government had this to say about the project that Eastern Health hadn’t had permission to start: “The Department of Municipal Affairs and Environment has been advised by Eastern Health that some preliminary work had been done to secure the site to prevent soil erosion and to ensure the site will be left in a safe condition prior to vacating the site. Eastern Health advised that no further work will be conducted prior to the minister’s decision on the Environmental Assessment.”

The situation is strange enough: the government is responsible for environmental oversight of itself. And that means it sometimes seems like projects are paid lip service as provincial agencies move ahead with what they want to do anyway.

Yes, Leary’s Brook is a battered little urban river, one that travels underground beneath the Avalon Mall parking lot, a river that’s festooned with plastic bags and that sprouts unlikely islands of abandoned shopping carts and vandalized bicycles thrown off bridges.

But it’s still a waterway, and its wetlands are still wetlands. And laws are still laws, even if you are a government agency.

What’s to happen if the environmental preview report says the project shouldn’t go ahead? Will the work already done be undone, with even more impact on the environment? Or is this all just an exercise in rubber-stamping a project that everyone knows is going ahead anyway, and always has been? (Interestingly, if you walk the route of the berm, you will find that there’s already a berm covering about half of the distance, provenance and construction date unknown, but old enough to be grown over with dandelions and other weeds.)

Think about that when you remember other environmental assessment work done in the province, assessments that always seem to let projects the government wants done get the go-ahead.

So what are we talking about here? Environmental mitigation, or just environmental mollification?

If it walks like a duck, talks like a duck, and used to nest like a duck …


Russell Wangersky’s column appears in 30 SaltWire newspapers and websites in Atlantic Canada. He can be reached at — Twitter: @wangersky.

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