Stephen Rees's blog

Thoughts about the relationships between transport and the urban area it serves

B.C. NDP demands probe of Penner’s role in silencing scientists

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Canadian Press via the CBC BC News

You may well recall that recently an old issue – the Genstar developments proposed in Mission – resurfaced with allegations that a BC Ministry of the Environment (actually known as the Ministry of Water, Land and Air Prtoection) official lost his job because he criticised this development. By the way Rafe Mair had a go at the same story in the Tyee this week.

I had the great pleasure of meeting the former official yesterday evening. Marvin Rosenau did indeed leave the Vancouver office of BCMWLAP but not, he says, because of Genstar. He was originally offered the oportunity to work at UBC with other scientists that he admired – he says it was not hard to accept the temporary move. His boss admitted that the move was needed because he had made himself “unpopular with Fraser Valley MLAs”. And one of those was Barry Penner who was then MLA for Chilliwack-Kent. Penner wrote a letter to the Deputy Minister of MWLAP. He stated that the provincial government supports the removal of gravel from the Fraser River. However, gravel is where fish spawn – and grow up. And fish habitat is a federal concern and the federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans had not issued an approval.

I am increasingly concerned by regular reports from various local government representatives that two employees of your Ministry are suggesting it is BC government policy not to support the removal of gravel from the Fraser River. I understand this to be in direct conflict with government policy and will be hapy to supply you with more specific information if you would like me to.

Could you please confirm that the Ministry of Water, Land and Air Protection supports the responsible removal of gravel from the Fraser River? If the answer is yes, I think it would be worthwhile to remind your ministry’s employees of this policy as well.

The letter dated January 29, 2003 was also copied to the Chair of the FVRD, the Mayors of Kent and Chiliwack, the Minister of Sustainable Resources Management and two other local MLAs – John Les (Chilliwack Sumas) and John van Dongen (Abbotsford Clayburn)

Yesterday, the Fraser Valley Salmon Society and the Chilliwack Vedder River Cleanup Coalition had a meeting with Barry Penner in the Premier’s office at Canada Place. In attendance were Marvin Rosenau (as the biologist for the FVSS) and Otto Langer who used to work for DFO Habitat.

They pointed out that the Fraser River is the most fish-rich freshwater ecosystem in all of BC including 5 species at risk. They also said that the risk of flooding has been “manipulated to give the impression that flloding was imminent in order to give access to gravel”. Gravel is of course a highly desirable commodity because of its role in building and development, and the more local the source of the gravel to the development sites the lower the cost to the developers. (Transport is one of the biggest elements of the cost of getting gravel.) There are several companies and individuals with very strong ties to the BC Liberals – not just gravel companies but the builders and developers eager to get the gravel out. And recently that is exactly what they have been doing – at Big Bar and Popkum in  2006 and Spring Bar in 2008. In each case no compensation for damage to habitat was made as required by the Canada Fisheries Act. Failure to provide meaningful mitigation is not only against that act but also the Canadain Environmental Assessment Act and the BC Water Act – which clearly BC MWALP is supposed to implement.

Marvin is now teaching at BCIT. He seems to be happy that he has left MWALP but that does not mean he is happy with what is happening in the Fraser Valley. Recently I have taken to saying that my departure from Translink was not happy for me at the time, but as the disfunction of that body has worsened and my ability to get across to people what we are losing as a result of Translink’s  policies has increased. I must say that I am now much happier – and even state that my removal for  that agency I now regard as a badge of honour. I hope that Marvin will feel that way too.

In Orwell’s novel 1984, there were only four  Ministries: the Ministry of Plenty was concerned with rationing: the Ministry of Peace with waging war: the Ministry of Truth with propaganda. And of course the overarching Ministry of Love concerned with repression.  Our Ministries are similar. MWLAP does not protect air, water or land. It presides over their wholesale destruction – and the promotion of private sector profits. Development is now the main aim of this government – no matter what the impact on sensitive ecosystems or human health and well being. Our Environmental Assessment process cannot stop any project – it can only try to get a bit of mitigation promised. In the case of the Highway #1 expansion the mitigation proferred by the proponent were projects which had already been implemented as mitgation for earlioer expansions. In other words the government gave itself permission to proceed (it is propoent, judge and jury in its own case) despite there being inadeqaute mitigation measures for a much bigger project.

Scientists are not now popular with any right wing government. They keep on coming up with inconvenient truths. The greatest one is that we are part of the ecosystem. We cannot simply keep on taking resources – and dumping the stuff we no longer need – because the ecosystem cannot support our rates of consumption. The loss of habitat and of other species is not some trivial inconvenience, to be brushed under the carpet so that a few people can make a lot of money. It is threatening our very survival. And that is not debating hyberbole. It is the plain and simple truth.

It is also sad fact that the attention of the electorate has been taken up by the current financial crisis. The federal election would have been about climate change if it had been held last year. The provincial election next year can still be about the BC Liberals shameful track record in trashing this province while pretending to be green. The carbon tax has become a very useful tool for the NDP to beat up the Liberals – but that camapign does credit to neither side. The future of humanity on this planet is far too important to be relegated to this sort of side show.

But the issue of “policy” – a wrong headed, fatally flawed policy at that – overriding the advice of well qualified scientific experts, recruited and paid for their expertise and then treated as nuisances – is one that goes well beyond the gravel reach. It is a fundamental principle that professional civil servants do their best for whatever government is elected. They provide objective, well reasoned advice based on the best evidence available and they do not shade or spin that advice to meet the preference of ministers or local mayors. There are plenty of party hacks appointed under orders in council to do that. And an MLA – or a Minister – taking the time and effort to mount a direct attack on individuals working in the field and doing the job they are paid to do – is quite outside the proper conduct of goivernment business. It raises fundamental questions about the independence and quality of the public service. And Gordon Campbell needs to pull Barry Penner aside and warn him that he overstepped that line back in 2003. It may well be that he also has put himself in a position where he is now displaying the appearance of a conflict of interest – if indeed it can be shown that the wrecking of fish habitat by gravel removal without any mitigation  – was ignored becuase he favoured the removal of gravel against the best advice that was available.

The “Best Place on Earth”? Not if the BC Liberals are left in charge.

Written by Stephen Rees

October 8, 2008 at 10:46 am

Posted in Environment, politics

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2 Responses

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  1. I have to ask, where is the DFO in all this? They have the power to enforce the Fisheries Act which has very stringent clauses regarding protecting salmonid (and other) habitat. Obviously science doesn’t mean one whit to most of the current crop of politicosat the senior level.

    I often deal with an environment review committee (with reps from DFO, the province and the city) in our projects at the municipal level, and I’ve found the process is usually very fair. We often provide enhancesments to existing habitat either on-site or off-site far in excess of the area of disturbance for the right to develop. We follow all the rules, such as doing in-stream work only during the narrow August 15-September 15 “fisheries window.”

    That standard was in my mind while reading about the abdication of responsibility at the provincial and federal levels. Eg: sea lice impacts from fish farms on wild salmon runs; logged over riparian setbacks in forest cutblocks; gravel extraction and overly-ambitious run of river diversions. There is no way we could get away with that at the municipal level.

    One day I’d like to see scientists elevated in government bureaucracies, or even run for office. The lawyers and corporate directors have had their day, and look at the results.


    October 8, 2008 at 11:21 am

  2. […] a comment » I looked at this issue back in October. Today’s story in the Vancouver Sun shows that not only were salmon destroyed but the risk […]

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