Information Required for Environmental Assessments
A robust understanding of the environmental effects of a project is possible only if there is adequate baseline and other scientific and technical data, analyses, studies and related information about the environment that stands to be impacted by the project, and about the project itself.100
-Beverly J. Hobby – Department of Justice, Canada
The EAO’s Application Information Requirements (AIR) template identifies the information that the proponent should provide in the EA.101 However, the AIR template is a “Guidance Document” rather than law, and as such, carries little legal weight. Currently, the AIR template is undergoing revision, and an updated version is expected in early 2013. In the 2010 version of the AIR template, the required information includes a summary and a detailed description of the proposed plans.102 There is no requirement, however, that proponents provide baseline data, which is essential to:
- ensure accurate assessments of environmental impacts;
- design appropriate infrastructure and plan for long-term treatment; and
- provide the information necessary to identify signs of environmental problems.
Proponents are only encouraged under provincial policy, not law, to include a general description of existing biophysical environment at the proposed site and surrounding areas within the zone of potential influences of the proposed mine.103 When describing the existing biophysical environment, proponents must use valued environmental components (see: Evaluation of Effects, below).
Despite this attempt to standardize the information required from proponents, the information obtained for similar projects undergoing an EA in BC is not always the same. Rather, what information is required often depends on which individuals represent the EAO, other government agencies and proponents for a particular project.104 BC’s lack of mandatory legal provisions on content and methodology has been criticized for leading to inconsistencies in the standards and protocols used by proponents in gathering information, such as baseline studies.105
Adequate baseline data is essential to accurately assess the potential impacts of a project. BC laws, however, do not require adequate baseline studies as part of the EA process.
Mandatory collection of adequate baseline data for EAs
[Tags: EA; Baseline studies]
Baseline data must be collected over a sufficient period of time to accurately characterize local environmental conditions. BC’s EA law does not, however, prescribe any timelines for the collection of baseline data. Conversely, other jurisdictions prescribe minimum time periods over which baseline data must be collected. In Colorado, for example, the law requires that baseline studies contain five successive calendar quarters of monitoring data.106
Another way to improve the accuracy of baseline information would be to create a province-wide baseline database. Such a database could include information from BC’s pre-existing monitoring networks. Unfortunately, a recent study found that the province’s meteorological and hydrometric network “fell short of international standard for station density and warned of a growing risk that the networks may not optimally support” resource management decision making.107
California law recognizes the importance of a thorough environmental database by requiring that information compiled in individual EAs be incorporated into a larger database.108 Oregon also requires the regulatory body to provide any groundwater quality data acquired while carrying out its statutory duties to the state-wide repository of information on the state’s groundwater resource.109 The information contained in these types of databases can help in the preparation of future EAs and in assessing cumulative effects of other proposed projects (see: Cumulative Effects, below).110
Finally, environmental data alone is insufficient to assess the impacts of a proposed project: socio-economic information is also important. In BC, baseline studies for social and economic values are not mandated by law, but this information is required as part of the AIR template that the proponent must submit.111 Such studies are also required under the James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement, which mandates that the EA include a description of the state of the environmental and social setting before the proposed development begins “in order to have a reference point for the evaluation of the impacts of the development”.112
Involve local communities and First Nations in baseline data collection
[Tags: EA; Baseline Studies; Local Communities; First Nations]
One way to increase capacity in and involvement of local communities is to engage them in the collection of baseline data. Concurrently, the involvement of local communities can bring many benefits to the process, including: harnessing unique local environmental knowledge; promoting project legitimately; and enhancing the effectiveness of monitoring and impact management measures.113
A notable approach is provided in South Dakota, where soil, vegetation, and wildlife surveys included in the mine reclamation plan must be completed by the local conservation authority and paid for by the mine permit applicant.114 Although BC does not have conservation authorities, similar provisions could empower local First Nation or local community organizations to conduct environmental baseline surveys.
First Nations could also be involved in providing baseline information based on traditional knowledge. The expansion of baseline data to include traditional knowledge, in addition to scientific data, could also improve the accuracy of the baseline data.
Credible, Unbiased Data
The EA process in BC is entirely founded on information and analysis provided by the proponent. This can result in an apprehension of bias about the contents and accuracy of the EA.
Require independent qualified professionals to prepare baseline assessments
[Tags: EA, Expertise]
Qualified professionals are bound by professional standards, codes of ethics and disciplinary repercussions, and this provides a degree of assurance to the quality and independence of their work.115 Although BC’s policy and standard practice is to have qualified professionals prepare the baseline studies and assessments to be used in the EA, this is not required by law.116 In contrast to BC, other jurisdictions legally require qualified professionals to prepare the information in EAs. For example:
- In Colorado, the regulatory authority can require the proponent to retain and pay for a third-party professional expert to oversee the collection of baseline information, monitor the field operations in which baseline data are collected, and review any baseline data or site information collected by the mining company.117
- In South Africa, the law requires EAs to be managed by an independent EA practitioner with expertise in conducting EAs, which includes knowledge of the legislation and any guidelines relevant to the proposed activity. The practitioner must perform the work “in an objective manner, even if this results in views and findings that are not favourable to the applicant”.118
- In Mozambique, the law mandates that the EA be completed by an environmental specialist licensed by the government institution responsible for ensuring the preservation and responsible use of natural resources, the coordination of environmental activities and environmental licensing.119
To prevent any appearance of undue influence by the proponent on the qualified professional, the latter could be paid by and report directly to the EAO. The proponent would then be responsible for paying fees to the EAO to cover the costs of the qualified professional.
Acknowledge and describe data uncertainties to ensure full disclosure
[Tags: EA; Limitations; Information]
To ensure full disclosure, any uncertainties in the EA should be clearly identified and communicated to the regulatory authority. This is recognized in the United Kingdom, where the law requires that EAs contain “an indication of any difficulties (technical deficiencies or lack of know-how) encountered by the applicant in compiling the required information”.120 Similarly, under South African law, the EA must include a “description of any assumptions, uncertainties and gaps in knowledge”.121 Under Dutch law, the EA must contain a list of data gaps in the descriptions of the current state of the environment and the effects of the proposed activities.122 BC law should mandate that similar uncertainties be brought to the attention of the EAO, First Nations and the general public to promote greater transparency in the process.