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B.C. falling short on environmental monitoring, ombudsman says

A dead salmon in the Harrison River near Harrison Mills, B.C. Wednesday, Nov. 21, 2013. A report from the provincial ombudsman says the B.C. government is falling short in monitoring its own environmental regulations.

JONATHAN HAYWARD/THE CANADIAN PRESS

The B.C. government lacks oversight of an environmental regulation meant to protect the areas that border rivers, lakes and streams, says the provincial ombudsman.

Kim Carter's latest report looks at the Riparian Areas Regulation, which applies to 15 regional districts in populated areas from Vancouver Island to the Interior.

"One of the important and recurring roles of government in modern society is to find an appropriate balance between two sometimes competing public interests such as development and environmental protection," Carter said in the report released Wednesday.

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The flaws in monitoring and enforcement of the rules for riparian zones are "an example of what can occur when there is shared federal, provincial and local government responsibility for environmental protection."

The report pointed out that the ministry relies on proponents of a development that hires their own professionals to conduct assessments of environmental effects. Those reports are then submitted to the ministry for review.

"The underlying philosophy is that with (qualified professionals) doing the work on the ground, government resources focus on oversight activities — monitoring, reporting and enforcement," the report said.

"Our investigation highlights the challenges of implementing this model in the RAR (Riparian Areas Regulation) context."

The ministry was not meeting its own goals for reviewing those reports or conducting site visits, Carter found, and therefore didn't have enough information to confirm compliance.

The Ministry of Forests, Lands and Natural Resources took over administration of the regulation from the Environment Ministry in 2010. That ministry used to review all reports submitted but decided five years ago that only one in five in each region needed review.

"Having established this audit goal, though, the ministry did not meet it," the report said.

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Carter made 25 recommendations, 24 of which have already been accepted by the province.

Those recommendations include changes to the regulation and the "professional reliance" system.

Carter also recommended that ministry staff review all assessment reports. That was the one recommendation not accepted by the province, though the ministry has agreed to review all reports for at least the next two years.

New Democrat environment critic Spencer Chandra Herbert said the report shows the inadequacies in environmental protections in B.C.

"The government has not been minding the store," he said.

"There really hasn't been good oversight over protecting our riparian areas at all from the Minister of Forests, Land and Natural Resources, despite warnings," he said.

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Chandra Herbert said there have been major cuts to ministry staff.

"That's led to big hold-ups on the industry side as they're waiting for reports to be read or action to be taken, and also on the environmental protection side because ... they just don't have the people to do it," he said.

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