Environmental concerns rarely block development

Despite common perception, the vast majority of development proposals are approved by the Provincial Government

In this week’s column, I take a look at the number of development proposals denied because of “environmental concerns” since 2001. Before I get to the fun part, however, I have a confession to make. I am not a very “green” person.

My wife constantly chides me for not recycling. I hop in my small SUV and drive whenever and wherever I want without thought. I don’t compost, even though it’s been made easy for me.

My concern for our environment largely grew from a childhood spent in the Province’s (once) great parks system and wild places. Family camping trips and boil-ups in Western Newfoundland were times for adventure and exploration. In my teenage years I began training myself to be a career musician – I was a music geek long before “Glee” made it semi-popular. Yet, when I graduated high school, I had a complete change of heart. I decided (somewhat foolishly) that playing tuba for the rest of my life simply wouldn’t be fulfilling enough. So, while on a camping trip with friends, I asked the eternal teenaged question, “What will I do with my life?” After examining what I enjoyed best in life, the answer was easy – I would ensure people always had wilderness to enjoy by protecting natural spaces in our Province.

The point of my little egocentric story is that I think I am basically your average Newfoundlander. Yet, because I have commented publically on environmental issues, I am often labelled as “anti-development”. So is anyone who espouses similar views. How often have you heard someone say “You can’t do nothing here, b’y. Damn greens oppose any development…”? Well, let’s take a closer look.

Environmental Assessment basics

Both the Provincial and Federal governments have laws and regulations that oversee the review of proposed developments. If you want to build a road or a factory, you have to go through an “Environmental Assessment” or EA. In Newfoundland and Labrador, I think we have pretty good EA legislation (follow this link to a handy short guide on Newfoundland and Labrador’s Environmental Assessment process). Without going into much detail, a proponent must submit a detailed proposal which is then vetted throughout government. Various departments have an opportunity to comment, as does the public. Proposals can be revised and, ultimately, the Minister makes a decision (in this case, the actual Minister really makes the decision – that’s why this legislation is open to human failings). They can release a proposal from the process (effectively approving it), release it with conditions, or outright reject a proposal. Proponents can also withdraw their submission. The list of proposals that must go through an EA is long and includes everything from abattoirs to wood preservation facilities. In fact, the legislation gives the Minister the power to review any proposed development. The federal government has a similar process that is triggered under certain conditions.

Guess how many proposals were canceled because of environmental concerns?

Environmental Assessments in NL (2001 to 2012)Since 2001, 738 projects have gone through the Provincial EA process. So, how many were rejected? 15. That’s a whopping 2%. Even if you include the projects that were withdrawn by the proponent or expired, the total “skyrockets” to 8%. Kind of puts paid to “can’t do anything here” comments, doesn’t it? Although the number of rejected projects fluctuates between 1 and 9, the trend doesn’t appear to be significantly increasing over time – in 2001, 9 projects did not get approved and in 2012, 8 projects did not get approved. The relative proportion of rejected projects to projects submitted reflects the same trend (that is, between 2% and 13% of all projects submitted are rejected or withdrawn and the proportion was the same in 2001 as it was in 2012). As an aside, my devious mind compelled me to see if there was any relationship between the number of projects submitted and election years – I was a little surprised to see none. My analysis is helpfully summarized in Table 1.

Not all rejected projects are because of environmental concerns

So, why were some projects rejected? I surfed through the data and found that not all rejections were for environmental concerns. For example, in 2012 a proposal for an ATV trail was rejected because the Department of Transportation and Works decided that the proposed development was too close to a highway and posed a safety hazard. In 2010, a residential subdivision proposal for St. Georges was rejected because of concerns with snow clearing and water supply quality.

Although I am often discouraged with our environmental record, conducting the research for this article was actually quite positive. It showed me that the environmental assessment process quietly reviews proposals and, by and large, provides sound and rational direction on mitigating impacts on our environment.

But we must be vigilant. As I mentioned earlier, the Minister makes the ultimate decision and we are none of us perfect. Projects get released for what some may construe to be political or even personal reasons. For example, in April 2002, Government released a proposal to mow down most of Windmill Bight Provincial Park for a golf course. The park was in the then-Premier’s district. Eight months later in December, Government backed down on the proposal because, well, it would have broken the law (thanks to the environmental groups that held government accountable – it was only a day or so before the case went to court that government backed down).

It is wrong to dismiss public concerns regarding our environment

There are three proposed developments on the Island of Newfoundland that have received a lot of attention from the general public. In Western Newfoundland, there are two – a hydraulic fracturing or “fracking” proposal, and an open pit mine proposal within the water supply for the City of Corner Brook. In Eastern Newfoundland, there are well advanced plans to effectively destroy Sandy Pond by using it to dump mine waste (tailings). All three are at different stages in their environmental assessment. The fracking proposal is being reviewed by the Canada-Newfoundland Offshore Petroleum Board but has yet to be submitted to the Provincial Government. The open pit mine proposal is being reviewed by the City of Corner Brook (pending approval of their Sustainability Plan). Sandy Pond has actually passed both Provincial and Federal EA processes but may be affected by a legal challenge.

Have a look at the comments associated with any letter or column opposing these developments. Invariably, proposal supporters jeeringly write that it is fashionable to oppose development or that concerned citizens are anti-development. These types of statements are simply false and do not contribute to the debate. If they were true, then the “anti-development crowd” is not doing a good job because 98% of all developments proposed under the Provincial EA process are approved. The fact that so few developments engage the public in a meaningful way should give pause to politicians and developers – we’re average Newfoundlanders who recognize when something deserves a closer look.

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