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Editorial: Governments serving whom?

No charges have been laid in the Mount Polley tailings dam disaster.

In my few years of reporting on Rossland City Council, I have observed different styles of interaction between Council members, and between Council and the public; I have observed different concerns and priorities.  But always, our City Councils seem to have been concerned to do the best thing for Rossland and its people -- according to the values of our Council members of the time.  Yes, priorities have differed, and some errors have happened.  We all know that.  Errors and misjudgments will probably always happen; we just hope the effects are relatively insignificant. Overall, it seems to this resident and observer that Rosslanders have little to complain about with regard to our local governance these days.

Provincially and federally I see much more fuel for complaint.  Make that outrage.

Why do non-profit societies have to sue these levels of government in attempts to obtain court orders forcing them to govern according to the laws of the land when those laws are aimed at protecting human health, or wildlife, or wild fisheries, or the already-established rights of First Nations?  Why do our governments seem to think that short-term economic "growth" of the sort that results from acquiescing to the demands of industrial interests such as the fossil fuel industry, the mineral exploration and extraction industry and the salmon-farming industry, to name only three of the better-known from a long list of them, is of greater value to our province or our nation than safeguarding everyone's health and longer-term economic interests?  

In 2015, a  non-profit public-interest organization called Ecojustice sued Canada's federal government over the Department of Fisheries and Oceans' (DFO) negligent conduct in allowing fish farm companies to place fish carrying infectious disease into open-net fish-farm pens situated along the migration routes of wild salmon.  Ecojustice won the case in Federal Court. 

The real shocker?  DFO joined with the fish-farm company (Marine Harvest) in appealing the Federal Court decision.  The unavoidable message:  DFO is on the side of a foreign-owned company and puts its interests ahead of the health and viability of BC's wild salmon populations and all who depend on them.  What is wrong with this picture?

In April of 2016, the appeal was withdrawn, but only after more evidence came to light about diseased fish in salmon farms.  That the appeal was dropped is a piece of good news for BC's wild ocean fisheries. 

But wait -- don't rejoice too quickly:  DFO is still refusing to test farmed salmon for the virus associated with a disease deadly to wild fish before allowing them to be placed into those open-net pens on wild salmon migration routes.  So a new lawsuit is in the works, again thanks to a public-interest non-profit. 

Why should it be so hard to protect the health of such a valuable resource as wild salmon?  Why should it be up to individual donors to fund lawsuits to force the government to act in the public interest? Or, why is the government's concept of "the public interest" so divorced from the long-term ecological health necessary to keep our economy going?

As for our provincial government, consider its gung-ho barging ahead regardless with  Site C, over the protests of First Nations whose treaty rights are being ignored, and over the protests of the Regional District in which the dam is being located, and over the protests of local landowners, not to mention the findings of the joint federal-provincial review panel tasked with assessing the project.  The joint review panel found that there was no need for the dam or the energy it is intended to produce.  That finding has been ignored by both the BC government and the federal government; both have issued permits for it to proceed, and the work is going ahead.  Whose interests will the project serve?

The chair of the joint review panel, Harry Swain, spoke about Site C to DeSmog Canada in a video on the project.  To view it, click this link.

"I think we're making a big mistake, a very expensive one," Swain says in the video. “Of the nine billion dollars it will cost, at least seven billion will never be returned. You and I as rate payers will end up paying seven billion bucks for something we get nothing for.”

 “There is no need for Site C,” Swain said. “If there was a need, we could meet it with a variety of other renewable and smaller scale sources.”

The mining industry has long been favoured in BC over the public interest in clean drinking water, healthy fresh-water fish habitat, wildlife, forestry, or private property  rights.  A recent report was released by the University of Victoria's Environmental Law Centre, commissioned by the Fair Mining Collaborative, a non-profit that helps First Nations assess mining activities and proposals.  A letter to Premier Christy Clarke accompanying the report calls for a "Commission of Public Inquiry to investigate and report on the Province’s regulation of the mining industry, and to make recommendations to rectify and improve BC mining regulation."  Both the letter and the report can be found here.

The letter states that "the provincial mine regulatory system is in a state of profound dysfunction.  A series of major systemic failures demonstrate the need for wide-ranging reform. The systemic failures include:

•   The Mount Polley Mine disaster;

•   The Auditor General’s devastating critique of provincial enforcement of mining laws;

•   The recent official confirmation that taxpayers may be liable to pay more than a billion dollars for mine cleanups;

•   The discovery that Government failed to inspect a closed Jordan River mine for over 20 years, allowing the undetected destruction of a salmon river;

•   Recent studies that document  how BC’s rules for environmental assessment fall far short of global best practices;

•   New research showing that BC’s placer mining rules endanger provincial rivers and streams; and

•   Growing discontent with the 19th century Gold Rush law that still authorizes prospectors to stake mining claims on private land, First Nations land and environmentally sensitive areas."

Further to the Mt. Polley disaster, a non-profit called MiningWatch Canada has initiated a lawsuit against the mining company and the provincial government.  "We are all concerned that, almost 30 months later, despite clear evidence of impacts on waters, fish and fish habitat, no sanctions and no penalties have been brought forwards by any level of government,”  explained the non-profit's co-ordinator, Ugo Lapointe.   But now the federal government is seeking to have the charges stayed.  That means the charges could just quietly go away -- never be pursued.  Whose interests would a stay of proceedings serve best?

Mining is a necessary sector of the global economy, but just how sloppy and destructive should it be in its effects on other resources such as fish and fish habitat, and fresh water for drinking?  And who should be responsible for ensuring compliance with even the minimal regulation on our statute books?  Arguably, the enforcement burden for protecting common resources and public health should not fall on private citizens or non-profit organizations.

Last year, the Peabody Coal Company lost a court case on the social cost of carbon; it posed all the usual laughable climate-change-denier arguments (inter alia, "the climate is not actually warming, but cooling; if it's warming, it's not warming because of human activity -- the sun is entirely responsible; higher levels of CO2 are healthy and promote growth; climate change is benign") and it was quite satisfying to read the court's weighing of the "evidence" they presented as contrasted with the overwhelming real evidence presented by the state of Minnesota which was defending the social cost it had set for carbon.

A new article in the Guardian details how the courts in many countries are being called upon by citizens and NGOs to enforce environmental protection.  In South Africa,  the government lost a case challenging its planned new coal-fired plant, which would have produced significant CO2 emissions.  In Austria, a federal court blocked a planned airport expansion in Vienna, because it would have resulted in an increase in CO2 emissions.  In Holland, a landmark climate change case resulted in a court order that the government take steps to reduce CO2 emissions.  In Pakistan, a farmer argued successfully in court that his rights to life and dignity were threatened by his government's inadequate climate change policies.

 We can celebrate the fact that these courts' findings support human rights to a healthy environment -- or at least, our right to keep it from being damaged too much faster.  But these courts' findings ought to be unnecessary, because our governments ought to be proactively taking steps to enforce environmental laws, to mitigate climate change, to protect wild fish populations and other wildlife, to protect the quality of fresh-water resources, to protect agricultural land, and to stop subsidizing what threatens those things.  Our governments ought to be acting in the best long-term interests of all our citizens, not just the owners and management of corporations.

So why, in do many instances,  is that not happening?  Might it have anything at all to do with the lobbying and associated very large political donations made by industrial/corporate interests? Really, can't we call the system allowing this what it is -- corrupt?  And having recognized the corruption, can we please get rid of it?  Some of our legislation seems to require major surgery.  And a lot of stitching up.