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Issue #1553      27 June 2012

Conservative Budget: Good for mining, bad for water

One of the earliest critics of this year’s Tory budget in Canada presented by Finance Minister Jim Flaherty was the Council of Canadians, whose members took part in the June 4 “BlackOutSpeakOut” campaign across Canada.

The budget is a gift to the mining industry and a curse on the environment, warns the Council, stressing that Bill C-38’s amendments to environmental regulation will allow companies to fast-track approval and permitting processes.

A statement from the Council says, “The so-called `one project, one review’ measure aims to bypass current environmental assessment processes and download responsibilities to ill-equipped provincial governments or do away with them altogether.”

In early June, analysts of the legislation reported that the current 6,000 annual federal environmental assessments done across Canada would plummet to about 20 if the legislation is adopted. Gutting environmental protections within the Fisheries Act would be part of this “streamlining and fast-tracking” process.

The Council of Canadians argues that “in the absence of a national water policy, the Fisheries Act with all its shortcomings is the strongest piece of federal legislation when it comes to the protection of freshwater resources.”

Under the Fisheries Act, the federal government prohibits any “deleterious substance” from being discharged into waters frequented by fish, and any works or undertakings that result in the “harmful alteration, disruption or destruction” (HADD) of fish habitat.

Now, the Harper government plans to replace the HADD wording with less extensive language which limits protections to fish that are deemed to be of economic, ecological and cultural value.

“It doesn’t take a fish expert to know it’s impossible to protect fish while allowing for the destruction of fish habitat,” says the Council. “Scientists have also argued that this creates a false notion that there are fish without ecological value.”

The potential impacts extend beyond fish populations. Undermining federal environmental safeguards will affect all species and communities dependent on clean freshwater for their well-being.

For example, in 2010, the destruction of fish habitat was a primary reason for the federal government’s rejection of an application by Taseko Mines to develop a copper and gold mine on Tsilhqot’in territory which would destroy Teztan Biny (“Fish Lake”), a pristine British Columbia lake that is also of great cultural and spiritual value to the community.

Companies can seek permission to destroy such a lake due to a regulatory loophole within the Metal Mining Effluent Regulation of the Fisheries Act. The “Schedule 2” loophole has been used by the Harper government to enable metal mining companies to request exemption from prohibitions against dumping deleterious substances into fish-bearing water or harming fish habitat.

The Metal Mining Effluent Regulation will now be extended to coal and diamond mines, making them eligible to apply for Schedule 2 exemptions.

The Tory budget 2012 aims at encouraging massive expansion in the mineral sector. The federal government estimates US$500 billion in investments to the water-intensive and water polluting mining and energy sector over the next decade.

As the Council notes, “the lifting of environmental restrictions comes at a time when provincial governments are planning to expand mining operations throughout the North. Ontario’s `Ring of Fire’ is staking tens of thousands of claims throughout the Northern half of the Boreal forest. Quebec’s controversial Plan Nord was recently scaled back as a result of strong public opposition. British Columbia plans to forge ahead with the building of eight new mines in the next four years and has introduced its own legislation to “cut red tape” and fast track approval processes for mining projects.

And Alberta continues to seek expansion of tar sands production with the full backing of the Harper government. Many in the media have linked the gutting of the Fisheries Act to the Northern Gateway pipeline which would impact fish habitat by cutting across hundreds of streams and rivers in order to transport tar sands oil from Alberta to the BC coast toward foreign markets.”

Meanwhile, investors will continue to benefit from public subsidies under the Mining Exploration Tax Credit for Flow-Through Shares, which has been extended to the end of 2014, costing an additional US$100 million in public revenues. The credit benefits speculative investors by reducing the after-tax cost of exploration, resulting in serious violations of Indigenous rights.

In response to these developments, the Council of Canadians held a well-attended “Shout Out against Mining Injustice” conference in Vancouver in early June.

People’s Voice   

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