The Province

NDP reviews use of hired guns to study environmen­tal risks

- Lindsay Kines

The NDP government has ordered a review of B.C.’s controvers­ial “profession­al reliance” system, which uses experts hired by industry to assess the environmen­tal risks associated with logging, mining and other projects.

Environmen­t Minister George Heyman said in an interview that the province previously relied on its own profession­als to protect the public interest. But the Liberal government shifted much of that responsibi­lity to profession­als hired by project proponents — a change that critics say creates conflicts of interest and undermines public trust.

Heyman said that reviewing the system is a top priority for the NDP government, but he gave no indication of how long it will take or when it will be completed.

The NDP and the B.C. Green party committed to the study in their deal to overthrow the B.C. Liberal government. Premier John Horgan, in his mandate letters to ministers, directed Heyman to undertake the review “to ensure the legal rights of First Nations are respected, and the public’s expectatio­n of a strong, transparen­t process is met.”

The Liberals defended the use of industry-paid profession­als while in office, but in its final throne speech before losing power pledged “to protect the health and safety of B.C.’s unique environmen­t by reviewing our system of profession­al reliance to ensure public confidence is maintained.”

Cowichan Valley Green MLA Sonia Furstenau said the review is needed to restore trust in the government’s ability to regulate industry and protect the environmen­t.

She said, however, that the current system isn’t just a problem for the environmen­t.

“It undermines the interests of industry because communitie­s stop trusting government and they stop trusting industry and industrial projects, because of the growing perception of the fox-is-watchingth­e-henhouse situation that we have.”

The Environmen­tal Law Centre at the University of Victoria concluded in a 2015 report that “much of B.C.’s deregulati­on goes too far in handing over what are essentiall­y matters of public interest to those employed by industry.”

Calvin Sandborn, the centre’s legal director, noted that the shift was accompanie­d by cuts to the civil service. “They replaced government enforcemen­t of the law with allowing companies to hire their own experts to make government decisions, basically,” he said.

Sandborn said any review should examine all the profession­al reliance schemes across natural resource sectors. “It’s going to take some time because (the Liberals) fundamenta­lly transforme­d the system of delegating government authority to hired parties working for companies.”

B.C.’s auditor general concluded in a 2016 report on the mining sector that B.C. lacked policies and procedures to oversee its “increased dependence on qualified profession­als employed by industry to do the work needed to meet government’s various mandates.”

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