Peter Kent’s department ducks questions about cuts following concerns over contaminant from Erin Brockovich case by Mike De Souza, April 1, 2013, canada.com
OTTAWA-Two weeks after being asked how it would enforce environmental regulations in the wake of cuts to scientific oversight, the Harper government has offered a reporter some answers to its own questions in an email. The government message came after some newly-released internal correspondence, exchanged between Environment Canada enforcement officers, raised concerns about the enforcement of existing and emerging regulations, including a cancer-linked contaminant at the heart of a court battle famously driven by American legal researcher Erin Brockovich. “Environment Canada (EC) will maintain the expertise to use high-quality, relevant data and methods available from a number of sources, including the US Environmental Protection Agency,” wrote Environment Canada spokesman Mark Johnson in the email that was sent on Thursday, March 28 at 20h14 ET. “This will allow EC to avoid duplicating the development of information that can be obtained from other credible sources.”
Enforcement officers never suggested there was duplication, but rather warned that the department had cut critical expertise.
In fact, a group of enforcement officers from across the country said they were all “on the same wavelength” with concerns that some regulations, including recently adopted rules to crack down on a chromium compound. According to Environment Canada this compound is “known to cause cancer” in humans, but the internal emails said the regulations could not be enforced without the support from a group of scientists that was disbanded following Finance Minister Jim Flaherty’s 2012 budget.
“Air pollution is not going to vanish and it is quite reasonable to believe that other substances released in the atmosphere might become regulated,” wrote one of the officers in an email sent on Dec. 6, 2012. “Retaining the service of a trained stack test technician and an experienced air emission scientist is probably a very strategic choice for enforcement or for the department to make now given our current and future mandate to enforce clean air regulations.”
Brockovich’s legal battle over contamination of drinking water from the same chromium compound was the inspiration for a Hollywood movie, starring Julia Roberts.
Three out of seven members on the team of specialists from Environment Canada took buyouts and left the department, while the other four accepted new roles that would supposedly involve oilsands monitoring oversight. But their job descriptions were not immediately clear. After breaking up the team, considered by enforcement officers to be the only group capable of doing this work, Environment Canada said it still had the expertise. “Existing regulations will continue to be enforced, with appropriate expert support,” wrote Johnson, in his email. “Scientists within EC are available to support enforcement, as appropriate.”
NDP deputy leader and environment critic Megan Leslie has described the cuts as an “ideological hack job” of federal scientific capacity. Environment Minister Peter Kent has said through a spokeswoman that he doesn’t “have a role in the enforcement decision-making process,” referring questions to his department.
Environment Canada was not immediately able to explain how it would define “appropriate expert level support.”
It was not immediately able to identify any areas of duplication that it believed were eliminated.
It was not immediately able to say which experts would oversee enforcement of regulations or explain their credentials and expertise.
It was not immediately able to explain why its own enforcement officers did not agree with its message.
It also was not immediately able to respond to a question asking whether it would now train its enforcement officers to recognize that their branch has expertise needed to do its job.
But Environment Canada’s email from Thursday night did include “apologies once again for the delay in responding.” [Emphasis added]
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