Feds not off the hook on Lower Churchill assessment: lawyer
ST. JOHN'S, NL -- The federal government is working towards changes to the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act, but according to a lawyer with Ecojustice, those changes will be irrelevant to an ongoing court challenge to the environmental review of the Lower Churchill project.
Ecojustice is representing Grand Riverkeeper Labrador and the Sierra Club of Canada in the court case. A third participant in the case, the NunatuKavut Community Council, is being represented separately.
The Lower Churchill project has been released from federal environmental assessment. However, the three groups involved in the court case claim the Government of Canada failed "to assess or incorrectly or unreasonably assessed" several key points, including potential alternatives, and were therefore not legally allowed to release the project from further review.
As for changes to the act – something Ecojustice is publicly objecting to as an organization – Ecojustice lawyer Lara Tessaro says it needs to be clear that work stands separate from the Lower Churchill.
"I think it's very important that the government not equate its desire to weaken environmental laws in Canada in the future with what are its current, legal obligations to assess the Lower Churchill project," she said.
"I'll just try and step back from that and be a bit clearer. It's clear the federal government hopes to weaken environmental assessment laws. But it's also very clear that, for the Lower Churchill project, it was the federal government itself and specifically the minister of Environment who required that alternatives be assessed.
"It was the government's direction to the joint review panel in the terms of reference that the joint review panel must study alternatives and it must study need for the project."
Tessaro says arguments and evidence for the court case have to be submitted over the next couple of months. That will be followed by a hearing – one she expects might happen in early summer.
Federal Minister of Natural Resources Joe Oliver has said he is eager to see changes to the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act in order to see the regulatory process "streamlined" for major projects.
While in St. John's, he told reporters he felt reforms were needed to keep certain environmental groups from "gaming" the review process.
"I can comment on that," Tessaro says. "Minister Oliver has, since early January, been casting aspersions on the environmental community in Canada. To be clear, the environmental community is simply you and me and our neighbours and people who care about conserving Canada's natural resources. So for the minister to allege that environmentalists are simply trying to cause interference, it's spurious."
Court case aside, the Lower Churchill project still requires authorizations from Fisheries and Oceans Canada and Transport Canada, in relation to planned effects on fish habitat and navigable waters, before construction can begin.
The proponent, Nalcor Energy, has yet to make its final no or go decision.