Coalition for the Protection of PEI Water Calls for Improved Environmental Assessment Process

Charlottetown – The decision of the Minister of Communities, Land and Environment to allow genetically modified salmon to be grown in Prince Edward Island was the result of a faulty environmental assessment process, says a local environmental group.

On Tuesday, July 11, representatives of the Coalition for the Protection of PEI Water met with Minister Mitchell to discuss the Coalition’s concerns about the approval of the proposal by AquaBounty Canada, Inc. to expand their plant in Rollo Bay West. The original approval, which was for an egg production facility, was expanded to a facility at which genetically modified salmon would be grown to market size, and then killed before being exported. 

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The group is unhappy about the approval for a variety of reasons, including the public consultation process, which they say was inadequate and poorly advertised. “Even after Environment officials decided to extend the deadline for submissions, there wasn’t really enough time for people to become informed enough or to prepare to respond to the application for such a big project,” says Catherine O’Brien, Chairperson of the Coalition. 

The fact that the new application by Aqua Bounty was judged not to warrant a new environmental assessment is of particular concern. Gary Schneider sits on the Multi-Interest Advisory Committee reviewing federal environmental assessment processes. He says there should have been a new and complete Environmental Impact Assessment, given that the new AquaBounty proposal was so substantially different from their original application, approved a year ago, when the stated intention was to only grow GMO eggs to be shipped elsewhere to be raised. “This is a classic example of “project splitting”, where the company was able to get approval for a smaller piece of the project (raising eggs) and then returned a short time later with what would seem to be their actual plan, thereby avoiding an independent evaluation of a very different project. The environmental impact assessment for this project was woefully inadequate.”

The coalition is also very concerned about environmental impacts of the new facility, and the potential for contamination of the wild salmon population should a GMO organism escape. They echo the concerns voiced by the Council of Canadians – published on July 17 in the Guardian – about AquaBounty’s environmental record, wastewater treatment and water use.

PEI will now become the first place in the world where GMO animals are grown for human consumption, and this has happened without any kind of public discussion, says Don Mazer, who also attended the meeting with the Minister. “There has been a complete absence of public debate about the merits of this idea, its social and ethical implications, and whether Islanders, and Canadians actually support this practice – it is quite astonishing.”

In responding to the Coalition’s concerns, the Minister indicated that responsibility for such projects is shared between different levels and departments of government.  He construed his own responsibilities quite specifically, and was pleased that the current project would use less water than the initial project (approved a year ago), due to a plan to recirculate the water. He was satisfied that the application met all of the specific requirements of established protocols for environmental assessment. The Minister felt that any broad ethical discussion about the merits of GMOs would be a federal responsibility, far beyond his jurisdiction, and he did not indicate any interest in taking a leadership role to create opportunities for such discussions.

And, as with the previous AquaBounty application, the Minister felt that it was not reasonable to ask applicants to wait for the new policies in the upcoming Water Act before having their proposals acted upon. In summary, he seemed quite satisfied with the process of approval for the expanded AquaBounty facilities. However, speaking for the coalition, Ann Wheatley noted that, “From our perspective, this approval is a clear reflection of how inadequate the current Environmental Impact Assessment processes are.” The Minister did encourage the Coalition to share their ideas for more thorough EIA processes. The Coalition has committed to do so, over the next few months.

Coalition members took the opportunity to ask for an update on the Water Act. The Minister indicated that the final draft would be posted online when it goes to the Legislature in the fall. No details were offered about what changes had been made to the first draft of the act as a result of the last round of consultations. When the issue was raised about the provision for municipalities to exceed limits the Act would set for water extraction, Minister and staff indicated that they hoped that this would be a temporary situation, but that they were not inclined to include time limits on that clause. “We suggested that it seemed like bad policy to enshrine an ongoing right for municipalities to break the law,” says Don Mazer. “They indicated that that they will take that idea under advisement.”

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For more information about this media release please contact Catherine O’Brien – cathjobrien@gmail.com, or Ann Wheatley – ann@cooperinstitute.ca

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