Months after a train derailment caused a deadly explosion in Lac-Mégantic, Que. and spilled six million litres of crude oil, the Government of Canada approved a $95-million plan to clean up contaminated soil and water without a proper environmental assessment, says a new audit released on Tuesday.

The proposal to clean up contamination in the Rivière Chaudière was implemented by Public Safety Canada. The audit released by Environment and Sustainable Development Commissioner Julie Gelfand showed Public Safety Canada failed to undertake – and pass on – an environmental assessment of the plan for government ministers.

“Public Safety Canada submitted the proposal without conducting a strategic environmental assessment, even though the proposal mentioned some environmental considerations and planned actions,” the auditors’ report says.

The case is one of a series of incidents uncovered in the audit that reveal public servants are failing to provide advice to ministers about the environmental implications of policies, decisions, plans and proposals.

"In the case of Lac-Mégantic ... the government of Canada decided that it was going to do the clean up and therefore you would have assumed there would be some net positive impact of the spending of that fund," Gelfand said Tuesday in Ottawa. "But no assessment of the potential positive or negative impacts of that was done ahead of time, presented to the minister before they made the decision.

"Think about a change to the tax system, which is in the news these days. What is the potential impact of new budgetary proposals, what’s the impact of changing the tax system, will there be any impact? There may not be any impact, but there may be, and so decision makers should know: are there going to be any impacts?"

The Treasury Board of Canada Secretariat, one of two central federal departments expected to make sure government agencies and departments are undertaking the environmental assessments, “provided no evidence that it worked with the Department to confirm that it had applied the strategic environmental assessment process to this proposal, which had obvious important environmental effects.”

Environment and Sustainable Development Commissioner Julie Gelfand
Environment and Sustainable Development Commissioner Julie Gelfand speaks to reporters in the Ottawa Press Gallery on Tuesday, Oct. 3, 2017. Photo by Alex Tétreault

Environmental assessment missing from government policy-making

Gelfand’s team of auditors focused on how government agencies and departments undertake a 30-year-old cabinet directive requiring early environmental assessment of policies, plans and proposals before they can move forward.

They zeroed in on proposals developed in six departments and agencies between January, 2013 through December, 2016 — a period that straddled the end of former prime minister Stephen Harper’s government and the beginning of Justin Trudeau’s.

They found that most of the proposals that were put in front of government ministers failed to include a weighing of potential environmental impacts. Bureaucrats were also not being pushed by central agencies like the Treasury Board and Privy Council to show how they had undertaken environmental assessments.

“We concluded that the cabinet directive was not applied to most policy, plan, and program proposals submitted for approval to an individual minister or to cabinet, including the Treasury Board,” the report said, adding, overall, “the departments and agencies we examined did not apply the directive to almost 80 percent of proposals. Only the Public Health Agency of Canada conducted preliminary assessments for all proposals submitted to Cabinet and for almost all proposals submitted to its Minister.”

The Cabinet Directive on the Environmental Assessment of Policy, Plan and Program Proposals was put in place in 1990, when Brian Mulroney was prime minister.

The directive was supposed to have been strengthened in recent years when the Federal Sustainable Development Act was introduced in 2010. At the same time, guidelines to meet the Cabinet directive were updated, requiring departments and agencies to: “consider a proposal’s effects on the goals and targets” of the development strategy; “report publicly on the extent and results of strategic environmental assessment practices;” and “describe the link to federal strategy goals and targets in public statements that explain results of detailed strategic environmental assessments.”

The agencies studied were the Atlantic Canada Opportunities Agency, the Canada Border Services Agency, Canada Economic Development for Quebec Regions, the Public Health Agency of Canada, Public Safety Canada, and Western Economic Diversification Canada.

The Public Health Agency of Canada was an outlier, having conducted assessments for “almost all” of its proposals. Public Safety Canada and Canada Border Services Agency were also exceptions, for having indicated they did fulfil the directive on 10 different proposals but leaving no record of how they did so.

Gelfand explicitly called on the Atlantic Canada Opportunities Agency, the Canada Border Services Agency, Canada Economic Development for Quebec Regions, Public Safety Canada, and Western Economic Diversification Canada to take up environmental assessments as required by the directive. Each of the five departments and agencies agreed with the recommendation in written responses that were published in Gelfand’s report, and committed to implementing new policies over the next year. Canada Economic Development for Quebec Regions indicated it had already undertaken improvements in June, 2017, including developing an environmental assessment questionnaire that aligns with the cabinet directive and changing how they document their approval process.

The buck doesn’t stop with the departments and agencies studied, however.

According to Gelfand’s audit team, while the Privy Council Office and the Treasury Board of Canada Secretariat have rules in place to help departments and agencies meet environmental assessment needs, they don’t follow up to make sure thorough assessments have taken place.

The Privy Council committed to updating how it oversees compliance by September (2017), including by asking departments or agencies to show they’ve done a preliminary environmental assessment. The Treasury Board secretariat said it would also develop additional guidance for government departments over the next year, “to support a clear demonstration that the Cabinet directive was fully considered and, where warranted, that environmental considerations were taken into account, for all proposals submitted for approval to the Treasury Board.”

Editor's note: This story was updated at 12:40 p.m. EST on Tuesday, Oct. 3 following Gelfand's press conference in Ottawa.

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