Eye Openers!

The Munk School of Global Affairs Program on Water Issues sponsored a Briefing by Scott Vaughan, Federal Commissioner of the Environment and Sustainable Development, Office of the Auditor General of Canada and Neil Maxwell, his successor, and Jean Cinq-Mars, the Quebec Sustainable Development Commissioner. Gordon Miller, the Ontario Commissioner of the Environment, also attended and gave the Ontario perspective on issues presented by his colleagues.

The briefing session was attended by representatives of industry, consultants, environmental organizations, environmental lawyers and members of the media. I attended as a representative of For Our Grandchildren (4RG).

The remarks of Messrs. Vaughan and Maxwell focused on five current issues: Offshore oil and gas production (the independent examination by the Commissioner’s office was the first in 20 years);  Financial Guarantees supporting the restoration of contaminated mine sites no longer in operation;  the risks of “Fracking”; Fossil fuels subsidies; and Marine Protected areas.

Although I probably shouldn’t have been, I was surprised to discover that contamination from mines in the North West Territories was a way of life in the post-war decades ending in the late 70’s.  Take the example of the Giant Mine, a gold mine that operated on the shores of Great Slave Lake from 1948 to 2004. The processing of the gold ore produced highly toxic arsenic-laced powder. In 2011 there was leakage from a disused tailing pond, and there are now fears that the whole watershed may be permanently affected by arsenic poison.  I should add that when Giant Mine engaged in the practice of storing this arsenic powder the good faith consensus of experts was that it could be stored indefinitely.

The Giant Mine is gone, the owner has no further assets, and only the Federal Government has the resources to restore the area – at a cost of approaching a billion dollars.

The Giant Mine is not a rare exception.  Many other mining operations are now similar horror stories.  Is the lesson for a private citizen that Canadians grab the immediate dollar, and let future generations worry about the consequences?  Does that parallel our attitude to climate change?

M. Cinq-Mars focused on water quality in Quebec.  Again I was floored by his observations on the practices that supposedly assure the safety of water use domestically.  In his view, the Quebec rules to assure clean water were outdated, enforcement of these rules (such as they are) was weak, authorities were slow to adapt to unforeseen risks, the cooperation between government departments and municipalities was weak, and environmental accounting was sporadic.

Do Canadians really have an attitude that we can despoil nature (because there is so much of it, most of which is far away) and not be faced with the consequences?

I hope not but that possibility is the main eye opener.

Peter Jones

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