July 19, 2016
Minister Robert Mitchell,
Department of Communities, Land and the Environment
Box 2000, Charlottetown, PE C1A 7N8
Dear Minister Mitchell:
The Coalition for the Protection of PEI Water has serious concerns about the approval of the Aqua Bounty application to expand their operations in Rollo Bay, and the issuing of permits for the operation of four high capacity wells on June 17.
We regard approval of this application as a breach of faith, an action that is in direct contradiction to the goals and values of the thoughtful consultation process conducted by your department through the Environmental Advisory Council (EAC) in the development of the Water Act. The major impetus for developing a Water Act was the widely shared concern about the possibility of lifting the existing moratorium on high capacity wells for agriculture. This concern was at the heart of numerous high quality presentations made to the EAC. This is exactly the kind of issue that a Water Act is intended to deal with.
Common to many of these presentations, and evidenced in the EAC report, was the importance of transparent processes and meaningful community engagement on water issues. The approval of the Aqua Bounty application has failed to meet your own standards of transparency and engagement reflected in consultations about the Water Act.
The EAC report recommends that the province should:
- Ensure transparency on status of our water and the decision-making process that affects that status
- Consolidate and define the process for approval/rejection and regulation of high capacity wells
- Tailor water usage to respective watersheds and develop a watershed budget and water allocation system in consultation with local advisory groups, communities and municipalities.
But with Aqua Bounty, we saw a ‘consultation process’ that was inadequate from the beginning.
- Only a single notice for one public meeting was published on the back pages of the Guardian. Most concerned groups did not see that notice and therefore did not attend. Level 2 Public Consultations require “The meeting must be properly advertised by the proponent in the Guardian, as well as the local newspaper, for 6 consecutive days.”
- The Coalition and other environmental organizations sent letters of concern to the provincial government. Beyond acknowledgement of the receipt of these letters, we did not receive any indication that our concerns were addressed.
- Any public input that may have been received was not accessible: we did not see our letters of concern posted on your department’s website.
- The Coalition for the Protection of PEI Water and other concerned groups did not receive notification or invitation to a public meeting to provide meaningful input from key environmental stakeholders.
While this failure of process is very disturbing to us, the most startling and contradictory development is the issuing of permits for high capacity wells that allows the pumping of almost two million gallons of water a day to meet the needs of Aqua Bounty. This quantity is about half of the water used by the municipality of Charlottetown to meet the needs of 30,000 residents, its businesses, industries and institutions. The problems resulting from this level of extraction on the Winter River watershed are widely known, a result of the current policies and regulations that are recognized as inadequate and outdated by your own department and by the EAC.
How can you then issue permits based upon policies and regulations requiring the kind of change a Water Act would bring?
It should not matter if these are new wells or existing wells to be reactivated. The fact that these wells are for aquaculture and not agriculture seems like a minor distinction. We can only conclude that this was an expedited bi-lateral negotiation between your department and Aqua Bounty, designed to bypass the public and the development of a Water Act. Why was the approval of this application regarded as so urgent that it could not await the development of the needed policies for water use on PEI that we thought we were collectively working toward?
We are concerned and disturbed by your decision. But we are also disappointed. Up to this point, you have set a high standard for openness to consultation, transparency and responsiveness to community concerns in your tenure as Environment Minister. The processes of consultation for the Water Act reflects this high standard.
We are left with these questions:
1) Isn’t the issue of the approval of high capacity wells one of the key elements that a Water Act should address?
2) If this application process is indicative of current water governance by the province, are we to assume that selected new applicants will have access to the same process and get approval before we see a new Water Act?
3) Will all existing permit holders (now including Aqua Bounty and others that may be approved prior to the new Water Act) have to be in compliance with the regulatory component of the water act, or will there be a grandfather clause that allows existing users to use water as they always have?
The Aqua bounty permit raises other important questions about grandfather clauses. These wells will greatly increase the value of this or any business granted those rights and reflect a huge handover of public resources for private profit and economic benefit.
4) Are these permits/rights granted in perpetuity?
5) Could those rights be transferred in the sale of the business?
6) Could they be retained or re-sold separately by private or corporate entities should the business fail?
7) Can unused capacity be sold to another user?
8) Can water be transferred to another development?
9) Are these rights now property that can be transferred to heirs of the owners?
There needs to be significant action and response to public concerns to restore faith in the legitimacy of this process. The Aqua Bounty assessment process is inconsistent with the consultation values you have encouraged around the Water Act and which resulted in the sincere engagement of so many members of the PEI environmental community.
We believe it is important for you to make a full and public statement indicating your justifications for this decision and addressing its inconsistencies with the consultation values you have supported. We would like there to be an appeal process that would make it possible for you to rescind the permits that you expedited.
We are hopeful that you can take actions that can restore our faith and affirm the legitimacy of the process of developing the Water Act. Our Coalition includes a broad range of environmental and social justice groups from across PEI. We have been active and committed contributors to the consultations up to this point. It is disheartening to see fundamental values so easily bypassed.
Catherine O’Brien, Don Mazer, Gary Schneider
The Coalition for the Protection of PEI Water