BC Lags on Key Commitment as Environmental Assessment Act Turns Five Years Old

MiningWatch Canada – Northwest Institute – Sierra Club BC – SkeenaWild – West Coast Environmental Law Association – Wildsight

Environmental groups call on the BC government to deliver on its long-delayed promise to establish a public participation funding program for environmental assessments

xʷməθkʷəy̓əm (Musqueam), Skwxwú7mesh (Squamish) & səl̓ilwətaʔɬ (Tsleil-Waututh) Territories/VANCOUVER – Today, a coalition of BC environmental groups is urging the BC government to follow through on a key commitment that would better enable members of the public to participate in environmental decisions. 

Together, MiningWatch Canada, Northwest Institute, Sierra Club BC, SkeenaWild, West Coast Environmental Law Association and Wildsight issued the following joint statement to mark the five-year anniversary of the enactment of BC’s updated Environmental Assessment Act:

One of the BC government’s primary goals in enacting the new Environmental Assessment Act was to enhance public confidence and meaningful public participation in environmental assessments (EAs). A key element of meeting this goal is delivering on BC’s repeated promises since 2018 to establish an EA public participant funding program. 

The materials informing an assessment are mostly developed by the proponent, which has an interest in advancing a project. When communities want to review this evidence or address information gaps, they must find their own funding for expert support, which is often prohibitively expensive. A public participant funding program can level the playing field by allowing impacted communities to access funds for expert support. It is a critical step in supporting meaningful public participation in EAs. 

Unfortunately, despite repeated promises over more than five years, the BC government has made no tangible progress whatsoever towards its commitment of establishing an EA participant funding program. As we mark the five-year anniversary of the new Environmental Assessment Act, we call on BC to finally commit to a concrete timeline and process for establishing the EA participant funding program before autumn 2024.

BC’s failure to establish a participant funding program has real impacts on communities. One example is the experience of What Matters in Our Valley (WMIOV), a community group based in Telkwa that sought public participant funding in 2021 during the EA of the Tenas Coal project, to study potential project impacts to the Telkwa and Bulkley Rivers from acid mine drainage and other potentially toxic materials. 

BC rejected WMIOV’s request, stating that BC currently has no public participation funding program. A decision has not yet been reached in the EA. 

“BC provides no resources for the public or community groups like ours to obtain the type of professional advice and assistance we need to analyze the impacts of development proposals. Since these proposals generally involve highly technical questions, without access to such resources the environmental assessment process fails to provide an authentic or effective mechanism for public participation,” said Jay Gilden of WMIOV.

Last month, the BC government issued its first decision in an EA conducted entirely under the new Environmental Assessment Act, approving the Cariboo Gold Project in Wells, BC. No participant funding was made available during the EA.

“Over the past three years that we as residents of Wells were involved in the environmental assessment of the Cariboo Gold Project, we were unable to get either the proponent or the BC Environmental Assessment Office to commission independent studies of crucial issues,” said Wells resident and EA Community Advisory Committee member Cam Beck. “It would have made an immense difference if we had access to participant funding to independently evaluate questions around the project configuration and access, including power and road routing. BC has shown that it is unable to address critical information needs in the assessment process. The public needs to be able to secure expert assistance to fill those gaps.”

Environmental groups, including those issuing this release, sent a joint letter to Minister Heyman in September 2023 reiterating their request for a concrete timeline for near-term establishment of the promised EA participant funding program. They continue to await a response.

For more information, please contact:

  • Gavin Smith, Staff Lawyer, West Coast Environmental Law, 604-601-2512, [email protected]  
  • Jay Gilden, What Matters In Our Valley, 778-210-0542
  • Cam Beck, Wells resident and Cariboo Gold EA Community Advisory Committee member, [email protected]
  • Pat Moss, Northwest Institute, 250-877-9745, [email protected] 

Timeline of BC’s Unfulfilled EA Participant Funding Promise

  • May 2018: The independent Advisory Committee established by the BC government to guide environmental assessment (“EA”) reform recommends a public participant funding program: 

“For local governments or public interest groups to be satisfied that decisions made at the EA process gates represents a robust assessment that clearly addresses their interests, each will need sufficient technical and funding support… Funds should also be available through an independent source that can be seen to be objective about allocations based on an assessment of need. Funding for public participants needs to be sufficient to enable engagement from the early stages of project definition through to the management of compliance and enforcement.”

  • June 2018: The BC government’s intentions paper for EA revitalization commits: “A program for public participant funding is planned, with details subject to further engagement.”
  • November 2018: During debate on the Bill to enact the new Environmental Assessment Act, Minister George Heyman states to the Legislature: “Our intentions paper sets out that a program for public participant funding is planned, with details subject to further engagement.”
  • November 27, 2018: The new Environmental Assessment Act receives royal assent. The Act itself does not address participant funding.
  • September 2021: The Environmental Assessment Office (“EAO”) declines two requests by What Matters in Our Valley and the Northwest Institute for participant funding in the EA of the Tenas Coal Project. In its refusal, the EAO states:

“The EAO continues to advance other Environmental Assessment Revitalization objectives, including options for public participation funding… While the EAO encourages community groups and other interested parties to participate in project environmental assessments, unfortunately at this time the EAO is not able to provide any financial funding to support their participation.”

Both groups instead had to privately fundraise and seek in-kind assistance from an environmental charity to prepare reports, which they submitted to the EA of the Tenas Coal Project in July 2022.

  • September 2021: Various organizations, including those issuing today’s press release, write to Minister Heyman demanding a clear timeline for establishment of a participant funding program.
  • December 2021: In response, Minister Heyman writes:

While there is not currently a program for public participation funding, I understand that the EAO remains committed to engaging on options for public participant funding, as outlined in the Intentions Paper. Further details of future engagement will be provided when they are available.” 

  • September 2023: Various organizations, including those issuing today’s press release, again write to Minister Heyman, noting the lack of any action to establish a participant funding program and again demanding a clear timeline for its establishment. No response has been received to date.
  • October 2023: An environmental assessment certificate is issued for the Cariboo Gold Project, the first project to commence and complete assessment entirely under the new Environmental Assessment Act. A participant funding program was never made available to the community.