Category: environment

Canadian libricide: The destruction of Canada’s aquatic science libraries

There’s little I can say about the culling of the DFO (Department of Fisheries and Oceans) library collection that isn’t already covered in recent excellent reporting by Andrew Nikiforuk at the Tyee (here, and here), except to say that it alone should be enough to have the federal Conservatives removed from power. Forget the Senate scandal: the destruction of valuable scientific research and data is far more abhorrent, and unforgivable.

There’s nothing like a modern day book-burning (in some cases, literally) to support the accusation that the Conservatives are waging war on science—and environmental and climate science in particular.

On April 15 of last year, the Conservatives announced they were closing seven out of the eleven DFO science libraries across the country by autumn. The libraries were used for aquatic science research, and represented one of the world’s most comprehensive collections in the field, including 600,000 volumes, rare books, and hundreds-year-old data. But have no fear: the library collections were merely being “consolidated” and the information digitized, resulting in a more efficient system and annual savings of $443,000.

Those kinds of savings, however, barely register on government budgets. Besides, any discussion of savings becomes moot when you consider that the Conservatives just finished spending 100 times that, or $44.8 million, modernizing one of libraries they’ve now closed: the refurbished St. Andrews Biological Station (where Rachel Carson researched much of her book Silent Spring), which only re-opened last year.

But this is not, and never should be, about money.

The government originally suggested that all library material would remain available, either digitally or through inter-library loan. Then “all” got downgraded to “most.” Now it seems that “some” is something of an overstatement: it’s been suggested only 5% of the collection was digitized before the cull.

According to the Tyee report (with comments from scientists who remained anonymous out of fear they’d lose their funding), the culling of library collections was rushed and chaotic, with massive amounts of materials thrown into dumpsters bound for landfills, and others burned. Just how many volumes, and which research and data, were destroyed may never be known: no records were kept of what was being destroyed.

These libraries were used for science research—research that falls under the realm of environmental and climate science. The same kind of research done at such world-renowned research stations as the high-arctic Polar Environment Atmospheric Research Laboratory and the Experimental Lakes Area, both of which are on life support after attempts by the Conservatives to shut them down. The kind of research done by federal scientists who’ve been pressured not to speak to the media directly, and to modify their conclusions to fit government policy.

It’s either complete ignorance about the sheer importance of science research (a generous conclusion) or a shutting down, a muzzling, a vicious attack on any science that might stand in the way of natural resource extraction.

Or as retired research scientist Burt Ayles told the Tyee: “The government is either incompetent or malevolent or both.”

Assessing the Northern Gateway pipeline: Do’s and Don’ts

A lot has happened since the last session of hearings were scheduled in early March for the Joint Review Panel of the proposed Enbridge Northern Gateway pipeline.

In April the Conservatives tabled legislation to overhaul the entire environmental review process — the omnibus budget, Bill C-38, arguably the most destructive environmental legislation in Canadian history. Enbridge itself had a tough summer, with a major oil spill in Alberta, getting caught altering promotional video graphics to strategically remove otherwise dangerous islands from its tanker route, and, most notably, finding itself on the wrong end of a scathing report by the US National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) highlighting the neglect and incompetence that led to a three million-litre oil spill in the Kalamazoo River in Michigan in 2010.

And now that the review panel is preparing to enter final hearings — scheduled to begin September 4 — several obvious questions come to mind: How will the recent overhaul (and hollowing out) of environmental legislation affect the construction of the pipeline, as well as the effectiveness of the review process? How useful is the NTSB report in assessing whether Enbridge is competent and responsible enough to oversee such a massive and delicate pipeline project?

The answer? None of your business. At least, according to the Conservatives.

Nathan Cullen, a registered intervener at the review (and the NDP’s natural resources critic), thinks otherwise. He has requested to ask just such questions at the review panel this fall. Not only does Cullen recognize that the situation has fundamentally changed since the review process began, but as the only MP registered as an intervener, he feels it is his duty to bring the concerns of his constituency to the review panel (much of the pipeline would go through Cullen’s northern BC riding of Skeena-Bulkley Valley).

However, on August 22 the federal justice department sent its own letter to the review panel, requesting that Cullen not be allowed to proceed with his questions, aimed at witnesses from several federal departments.

Here, as briefly as possible, are the technicalities: The government argues that Cullen’s questions go beyond the scope of the hearings. Questions at the final hearings stage, they claim, must be about evidence already submitted to the panel (and, therefore, prior to both Bill C-38 and the NTSB report). As well, they argue that Cullen’s other questions are “outside the List of Issues found in the Hearing Order and therefore not within the mandate of the Panel.” These so-called unrelated issues that Cullen wants to raise include, for example, questions about Transport Canada’s reluctance to demand mandatory and enforceable commitments from Enbridge that they will fund safety measures.

For his part, Cullen argues that his questions do indeed fall under the mandate of the review panel. He, too, points to the Hearing Order, which states that discussion points are “not be limited to” those listed in the Hearing Order document, and simply “must relate” to those listed. As Cullen says: “Strictly limiting the topics to the List of Issues as set out in the Hearing Order could constrain the Panel from hearing questioning that is relevant to fulfilling its mandate.”

Regardless of who wins the technicality game, this attempt by the Conservatives to shut down Cullen’s participation in the review panel is petty, disingenuous, and juvenile — unhelpful to the assessment process, and unfair to the concerns of many Canadians regarding the Northern Gateway pipeline.

There are legitimate and pressing concerns about the influence of recent legislation on the Northern Gateway environmental review. Bill C-38 clobbered environmental reviews: Review processes are now subject to time constraints. The federal cabinet can overrule environmental assessment decisions. The scope of federal environmental assessments has been slashed. Pipelines projects are exempted from the Navigable Waters Protection Act. They are also exempted from species at risk legislation (meaning endangered fish will no longer be taken into account when pipeline projects are assessed, thereby removing protection from 80% of the 71 freshwater species at risk of extinction).

Absurdly, the review process no longer includes any federal department that can still conduct environmental assessments [Bill C-38 stripped this ability from 37 departments, leaving assessments in the hands of the National Energy Board, the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission, and the Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency]. And just as absurdly, the government has chastised Cullen for proposing a question that they claim only those (now three, conveniently absent) departments could answer.

The Conservatives have politicized the Northern Gateway pipeline. Not only was Bill C-38 designed to allow pipeline projects like the Northern Gateway to go ahead, Harper himself has stated his intention that the pipeline be approved.

And yet it is the Conservatives who accuse Cullen of playing politics. Cullen’s counterpart, Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver, said that Cullen “is seeking to politicize the work of the panel instead of waiting to hear the independent experts report.” (It was Oliver, by the way, who once called environmental organizations “radical groups.”)

These are just games. The only reason Cullen has become so involved is because the Conservatives have made it necessary that he do so — the environmental review process is now so weak that it has all but lost its legitimacy.

Is Cullen’s request a breach of the review panel’s mandate? Maybe. Is the review panel flexible enough to take into account new evidence in the later stages of assessment? Obviously not. Is the structure of the review panel adequate to deal with major changes to environmental legislation and to the review process itself? Of course not. Are Cullen’s questions vital to the effectiveness and credibility of the environmental review of the Northern Gateway pipeline? Yes, resoundingly so.

Oil, oil everywhere… Third Alberta spill in a month

This is not the kind of publicity the oil industry is looking for. Today we learned of yet another major oil spill to hit Alberta—the third in a month, and the latest in a string of major spills over a particularly prolific year.

Yesterday, June 18, nearly 1,450 barrels (230,000 litres) of heavy crude oil spilled from a pumping station on Enbridge’s Athabasca pipeline. The Athabasca is a major pipeline bringing oil directly out of Fort McMurray to Hardisty, the primary crude oil hub in western Canada.

There have, of course, been two other major spills recently. On May 19, a spill from an injection well sent 5,000 barrels (800,000 litres) of light oil into a muskeg in northern Alberta. The spill went undetected for several days before someone spotted it from a plane.

On June 7, another pipeline spill near Sundre, Alberta, sent 1,000 to 3,000 barrels (160,000 to 475,000 litres) of light sour crude oil into a tributary of the Red Deer River, upstream from the city of Red Deer’s water reservoir. The company, Plains Midstream, did not detect the spill itself. High water levels from a spring of heavy rains have complicated the cleanup, which could take all summer. Plains Midstream is still cleaning up an April 29, 2011, spill of 28,000 barrels (4.5 million litres) of oil in northern Alberta—one of the largest in Alberta’s history.

Alberta Premier Alison Redford called oil spills like the one near Sundre “an exception.” To test her theory, have a look at this map of recent major spills in Alberta.

It’s worth noting that earlier this month the Conservatives sacked one of Canada’s most respected oil spill experts—Kenneth Lee—whose position with the federal government will be eliminated, along with the research centre of which he was executive director.

All of this is particularly unsettling in light of today’s passing of the Conservative’s omnibus budget (Bill C-38), which will fast-track pipeline projects, greatly reduce environmental reviews and parliamentary scrutiny of pipeline projects, and exempt pipelines from the Navigable Waters Protection Act, thus removing protection of the majority of Canadian freshwater fish habitat (including that of around 80% of the fish at risk of extinction in Canada). All of these measures are especially welcome for proponents of the proposed Enbridge’s Northern Gateway pipeline, which would take oil sands crude oil through British Columbia to the Pacific coast, cutting through sensitive northern environments and First Nations land.

Parks Canada: How to create discontent, then muzzle it

Parks Canada employees have received letters warning them not to criticize the federal government. The letter warns that such criticism is a violation of Parks Canada’s code of ethics, and reminds employees of their “duty of loyalty.”

The letter has sparked the very thing it sought to suppress — criticism. Critics suggest that the government is trying to muzzle public servants, and has effectively issued a gag order to Parks Canada employees.

I admit that the duty of public servants is somewhat tricky in this regard. According to Parks Canada’s code of ethics, “All Parks Canada employees must work within the laws of Canada and demonstrate political neutrality, as well as support for the agenda and objectives of the Government of Canada and the objectives of the Parks Canada Agency, as they undertake the responsibilities of their position” (emphasis mine).

However, the code of ethics also explains that: “All Parks Canada employees must be open and honest in their dealings with the public, stakeholders and other organizations.” And it’s also important to note that these employees are charged to “protect, as a first priority, the natural and cultural heritage of our special places and ensure that they remain healthy and whole.”

And even though these employees effectively work for the government, they are also citizens, and they have rights, such as freedom of expression. The letter acknowledges this, though only in the context of “exceptional circumstances.”

Regardless, this week’s stern warning has public servants concerned. After all, this letter comes as the government passes their omnibus budget (first reading), which effectively kills the National Round Table on the Environment and the Economy. The National Round Table was cut, in part, for going against government policy by recommending that the government consider implementing a carbon tax to address climate change (in a report that the Conservatives themselves commissioned). Back in May, Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird let slip: “Why should taxpayers have to pay for more than 10 reports promoting a carbon tax? It should agree with Canadians. It should agree with the government” (emphasis mine).

When one’s actions have led to discontent or even dissent, one can either engage with that dissent, or muzzle it. The Conservatives seem prone to choosing the latter.

So, why might Parks Canada employees feel compelled to criticize the federal government? This year’s federal austerity measures have sliced Parks Canada’s budget by $29 million, resulting in 638 confirmed jobs cut (out of 1,689 affected notices).

Head conservator positions across the country have been reduced from 33 to 8. Parks Canada’s Education Outreach Program is now gone. Interpretive staff will be replaced by self-guided tours at 27 National Historic Sites. All three positions at the Historical Research Branch that relate to First Nations’ culture, history, archaeological sites, and cultural landscapes have been cut. Critics are also warning about the effect this will have on small businesses that benefit from Parks Canada-related tourism, particularly rural communities.

One concerned archaeologist has described how the cuts have devastated Parks Canada’s archaeological program.* Museums and labs across the country are closing, and their collections moved to Ottawa, which means that aboriginal communities across the country are losing access to their cultural artifacts, and thus another connection to their history. It was a decision that both academic and aboriginal groups have said came without any consultation.

[*For a taste of what these cuts look like on the ground, here are the numbers for archaeology: In BC, both archaeologist positions will be lost by September, leaving zero archaeologists on the Pacific Coast. In the prairies, both the Calgary and Winnipeg labs are closing, their artifacts going to Ottawa, and only 3 of 10 archaeology positions will be left in Western and Northern regions (6 of 7 archaeologists lost in Alberta). In Ontario, the Cornwall lab is closing, its artifacts going to Ottawa, and 6 of 7 archaeology positions lost (and the one left reduced to seasonal work). In Quebec, 10 of 12 archaeology positions are lost, and the one collections manager and three conservators are all relocated to Ottawa. On the East Coast, the Halifax lab is closing, with all Atlantic artifacts going to Ottawa, and 8 of 10 archaeologists lost. In the Arctic, the one remaining archaeologist may be cut. And at the head office in Ottawa, 4 of 8 archaeology policy positions are lost at the Archaeological Services Branch, Archaeology Policy no longer has a voice at the management table, and all 5 researches are gone from the Material Culture Section.]

Why is Parks Canada important? In short, Parks Canada employees do so much more than just point you toward a good day hike and clean up the crap you leave behind at your campsite. They are involved in protection, conservation, and research of our wildlife and their habitats. This is no small thing. They also protect, restore, and document our historical sites and artifacts. They are vital to Canada’s internal and external tourism industry. They interact with and educate the public about Canada’s wild spaces and historical sites, enriching our connection to both our environment and our history.

And if they feel like their employer is keeping them from doing all of this, if they are seeing how budget cuts are threatening the conservation of Canada’s natural and cultural heritage, they should be allowed to say something, publicly — to sound the alarm so the rest of us can find out what’s going on.

**

Here are some selections from the letter:

“Given our current circumstances, I would like to remind you, as an employee of the Parks Canada Agency, of your obligations regarding public expression, whether through the media (including social media), large meetings or in other forums. This is of particular significance with respect to the streamlining measures announced in the most recent federal budget.”

“I am aware that during this time of significant transition, the concept of loyalty can have a very particular meaning. However, as employees of the public sector, our duty is to support the elected government.”

“The duty of loyalty to the Agency is reflected in the Parks Canada Agency code of ethics and applies to all members of the Parks Canada team at all times. The duty of loyalty includes the duty to refrain from public criticism of the Government of Canada when speaking as an employee of the agency. Breaching the duty of loyalty may lead to disciplinary action.”

“Parks Canada has spokespersons who are designated to speak to the media. Should a journalist request your comments on a budget-related issue, suggest that the question be directed to your external relations manager.”