Go to Site Index See "Articles" main page
29th October 2018
...Continued from Part One

Parks then ordered Progress to drain virtually all of the water impounded by both dams.

According to the Environmental Assessment Office itself, “when a major project is proposed in British Columbia, it must undergo an environmental assessment. This process ensures that any potential environmental, economic, social, heritage and health effects that may occur during the lifetime of a major project are thoroughly assessed.”

The Act allows companies to request that major projects they wish to build be exempted from undergoing such assessments. But the clear intent is that such applications are made well before projects are built, not years after the fact.

In the ensuing months after Progress’s application was received, members of a large “working” group appointed by the Environmental Assessment Office to evaluate Progress’s proposal met to consider the application. Group members included representatives from several Treaty 8 First Nations, the Ministry of Energy, whose deputy minister is a director on the Oil and Gas Commission’s board, the Oil and Gas Commission itself and the City of Fort St. John, which is home to several energy company branch offices, including Progress Energy.

On July 17 of this year, the Environmental Assessment Office issued its final decision and posted it online.

“I have determined that the project will not have any significant adverse environmental, economic, social, heritage or health effects and that therefore an environmental assessment certificate is not required,” Kevin Jardine, associate deputy minister in the Environmental Assessment Office wrote in two letters to Jarred Anstett, Progress Energy’s regulatory advisor.

But the company had to meet a number of conditions before resuming operations at the dams.

Among other things, it had to hire a “qualified professional” to come up with plans that the company would then have to implement, including plans to minimize erosion and to ensure that to the full extent possible the dam’s reservoirs were not allowed to overfill.

(By then it was known that at another Progress Energy dam the company’s jerry-rigged efforts to drain an overfilled reservoir — by pumping water onto the open ground below — had almost triggered an environmental disaster at a nearby fish-bearing stream.)

The company was also required to file detailed water use reports once it resumed operation of the dams and to fully decommission the dams and rehabilitate lands when operations eventually ceased.

All of this was to be coordinated between the company and the Oil and Gas Commission, the same agency that had allowed the dams to be built in the first place.

Following the decision, the CCPA spoke with Environmental Assessment Office officials, including Teresa Morris, who was the lead official on the Progress file, Alex Denis, a project assessment officer, and Michael Shepard, an Environmental Assessment Office executive project director.

Although the Environmental Assessment Office received Progress’s request under the extraordinary circumstances of the dams already being built, the office insists that the same evaluation process was followed as if the dams had not yet been built.

On only two previous occasions has the Environmental Assessment Office dealt with major projects being built or partially built without an environmental certificate first being received or an exemption being sought.

In one case — a municipal water supply dam expansion in Campbell River — the project was only partially built before coming to the office’s attention. An exemption was subsequently granted.

In the other, a forest company in the Quesnel region, Dunkley Lumber, fully completed a new sawmill expansion without first notifying the Environmental Assessment Office. It too later received an exemption.

Progress Energy could face fines, jail terms

The Progress file, however, is unique, not only because it involved two fully built structures, but because of the wider network of unlicensed dams built by the company. Had the Environmental Assessment Office chosen to, it could have ordered the company to not only undergo full environmental assessments of both dams, but all the other “related” unlicensed dams that the company had also built.

Asked whether it had powers to require Progress Energy to post bonds to fully cover all dam decommissioning and reclamation costs, the Environmental Assessment Office said it did not and that it would fall to the Oil and Gas Commission to make that call.

As for the dams being built in violation of the Act, it now falls to the office’s compliance and enforcement staff to decide whether to recommend to Crown Counsel that fines and/or jail terms be sought. Under current regulations, the Environmental Assessment Office has up to three years to recommend to Crown counsel that penalties be sought.

Under the regulations, a company found guilty of violating the act by building major projects without approval is liable to pay a fine of up to $100,000 for a first offence and $200,000 for a second. Jail terms for company personnel of up to six months can also be sought.

The regulations stipulate that such penalties must be sought within three years of the Environmental Assessment Office learning that possible offences had occurred.

Since the Environmental Assessment Office learned of the dams’ existence in the summer of 2016, less than one year remains to initiate such charges.

In the past decade, according to a compliance and enforcement database maintained by the provincial Ministry of Environment, there have been 19 instances in which the Environmental Assessment Office has ordered companies to take corrective action at projects where the agency has jurisdiction.

None of those orders were accompanied by fines and no company personnel were charged with wrongdoing as a result of violating the act — an outcome that almost certainly has not gone unnoticed by Progress Energy and others.