Lax Federal Monitoring Putting Canadians at Risk: Environment Commissioner

JASON FEKETE,
 The Gazette
December 13, 2012

Canada's Environment Commissioner Scott Vaughan speaks during a news conference in Ottawa December 13, 2011.


OTTAWA — The public safety of Canadians is increasingly at risk because the federal government is failing to monitor and enforce its regulations on dangerous goods and decades-old oil and gas pipelines, Canada's environment watchdog warns in a new report.

In his annual report released Tuesday, the federal commissioner of the environment and sustainable development says the Conservative government is refusing to accept its environmental enforcement is inadequate and poorly managed.

Scott Vaughan also says in his report that Environment Canada is dragging its heels on improving scientific research in the department and adopting a long-term science plan.

Opposition parties said the report is a damning indictment of the Conservative government's environmental policies and particularly troubling considering the potential for more cuts to Environment Canada as part of the federal spending review.

In one of the audits released Tuesday, the commissioner found the federal government has failed to provide adequate oversight of the transport of dangerous goods, such as oil and gas, that could imperil the safety of Canadians.

"There's some pretty big gaps. There's some serious problems," Vaughan told reporters in Ottawa. "Canadians would certainly be better protected if these regulations were enforced correctly. They are there for a reason. They are to protect Canadians from exposure to hazardous materials."

In his first audit, which focused on the work of Transport Canada and the National Energy Board, Vaughan noted that dangerous products are constantly being transported by road, air and ship for use within Canada and for export.

Crude oil, petroleum products, natural gas liquids and natural gas move through about 71,000 kilometres of pipeline, and explosives are also shipped for use by mining and construction industries.

Vaughan said every week there are an average of two incidents involving the transport of dangerous products in Canada and an average of one pipeline incident, which could range from a minor leak to a major break or even an explosion.

Inspections showed that the wrong type of containers have been used, including one case in which sulfuric acid was erroneously put into a truck with an aluminum container. The truck dissolved 10 kilometres down the highway.

The NEB is "overstretched," he said, with around 65 employees responsible for the entire pipeline network, posing enormous challenges for inspections when many of the lines are 40, 50 or even 60 years old. There are major problems with the frequency of inspections and the structural integrity of the pipelines, he said.

The report comes as regulators review two proposed oilsands pipelines that are drawing fierce criticism from environmental groups and concerned citizens.

TransCanada's Keystone XL pipeline would run from northern Alberta to the Texas Gulf Coast, while Enbridge's Northern Gateway twin pipeline would ship oilsands crude from near Edmonton to a marine terminal in Kitimat, B.C., for shipment to other markets.

"They've got problems in terms of the oversight," Vaughan said about the NEB. "When these (pipelines) get older, then the risk of actually having an accident obviously increases."

The report says the NEB has failed to monitor properly whether companies' emergency procedure plans meet expectations, and when deficiencies were identified, there was little indication the regulator followed up to ensure corrective action was taken.

Many of the weaknesses found with Transport Canada's lack of oversight were identified more than five years ago and have yet to be fixed, the report says.

Environment Minister Peter Kent said Tuesday the government will ensure it uses the best available science and cost-effective technologies for its environmental monitoring systems.

He also noted that more than 99 per cent of dangerous-product shipments happen without incident and that the federal government has initiated a national risk-based inspection planning process.

Kent also argued the Harper government has actually beefed up enforcement since taking office in 2006.

"The government of Canada takes seriously its responsibility to effectively and efficiently monitor the air we breathe, the water we drink, and the land on which we live," Kent said in a statement.

"I want to assure Canadians that our government will continue to work towards creating an environment that is clean, safe, and sustainable, while maintaining economic growth."

The official Opposition NDP said the report shows scientific knowledge and strong regulatory protections are "under siege" by the Conservative government.

The government's regulatory compliance is woefully inadequate and putting Canadians at risk, said NDP environment critic Megan Leslie.

"It seems that with this government, there is no sheriff in town when it comes to enforcement and environmental protection," she said.

"The government, quite simply, is not doing its job when it comes to environmental protection. The problems are systemic."

In his report, Vaughan found a number of other problems, including:

- Environment Canada's enforcement program "lacks key information on individuals, companies and government agencies" needed to determine if enforcement activities are targeting the "highest-risk violators" that pose the greatest threat to human health and the environment.

The audit found that enforcement officials failed to follow up on half the actions that came up to ensure violators were again complying with environmental regulations, and that many regulations are only enforced after the department receives a complaint.

- Years after it was developed, Environment Canada has failed to implement a strategic plan to improve its internal scientific research in areas ranging from managing air and water pollution to toxic chemicals.

"Environment Canada needs to put its plan into practice. A department-wide plan for science is more urgent than ever in this period of fiscal restraint," the commissioner said.

- Future Canadian fish stocks cannot be taken for granted and parliamentarians must ask themselves some tough questions about the sustainability of the country's fishery.

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