Workers take soil samples as crews work to contain and clean up a pipeline spill at an oilsands facility near Fort McMurray, Alta., Wednesday, July 22, 2015. Photo by Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press
In the world of environmental assessments, few words carry as much significance as “significant.”
Simon Halfyard* knows that better than most. A biologist who works as an environmental consultant in British Columbia, he works for a company that was hired by a sub-consulting firm to do an assessment of the risks and impacts associated with a large-scale natural gas project on the province’s north coast, which was going to consume hectares of land. (He asked that his real name not be used for fear of reprisal.)
It became clear to him that a large amount of critical fish habitat was going to be lost to the footprint of the project.
“So in my interpretation of this, I declared this particular project to be a ‘significant’ risk,” he says. “You want to try and avoid significant effects.”
His assessment wasn’t well-received by his manager, who made it clear he was going to have to tone down his language and focus on the minimum requirements — to strive, Halfyard says, “for mediocrity.”
“‘You can’t say significant,’” Halfyard recalls being told by his manager. “‘You’re putting the project at risk.’”
The pressure persisted — from his own company, as well as the company that had sub-contracted them. Statements were removed from his report, and he was called out by the project manager as uncooperative in abrasive emails to his employer.
“I had two levels of censorship,” he says. “I didn’t understand why I should be unfairly pressured to undermine my professional judgment.”
Halfyard is one of several scientists who spoke to National Observer about their experiences with environmental assessments on major industrial projects that got approved after their proponents submitted dubious evidence in their applications. The consultants all experienced similar pressure to overlook evidence that might make it difficult for projects to get approved by regulatory agencies.
National Observer reached out to them over the past five months as part of an investigation into how federal and provincial officials review the environmental impacts of major industrial projects. The investigation was triggered by tips from several scientists about what they perceived as weaknesses in the current regulatory system. National Observer spoke to more than a dozen sources who held or continue to hold different positions in government and industry that are related to environmental reviews and oversight as part of this investigation. MORE