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Changing our Act

The five-year review of the Environment Act is an exercise in bureaucracy, but also a time for self-reflection.



Headlines don't scream about it, but it's a significant force in determining our fate. It's the asexual, non-violent, uncelebrated five-year review of the Nova Scotia Environment Act. Let's dance!

Yes, it's a standard bureaucratic operation, legislated within the act itself, but the current review illuminates some problems with attempting to legislate sustainability in a madly unsustainable culture. Two significant issues come to mind:

1. The process is another example of the province's first NDP government, which swore it would better heed the people's will, being poor at public consultation. Having axed the province's public consultation arm, it tends to ask the experts and post online feedback forms, for use by those aware of their existence.

In the case of the Environment Act, NSE has posted proposed changes to its website (see for comment and given the public two weeks---mid-summer---to respond to changes to a 90-page piece of complex legislation covering the myriad ways citizens and corporations affect the natural world.

"Nova Scotia Environment announced the review and discussion paper through a media release in English and French on July 22," says Lori Errington, a communications officer with the department. "In addition, we placed ads throughout the province, announcing the opportunity for written comments on the proposed changes. We hope to bring forward legislative changes in the fall session of the legislature."

The deadline for comment has been extended to September 6, but the province's environmental groups are scrambling over legalese and a vague document explaining the changes.

NSE staff say they are clarifying things by talking with whoever requests a meeting, but it remains unclear why the fall deadline is necessary. The province has consistently missed its own deadlines on delivering strategies on issues like wetland conservation and natural resources management. If the deadline is important, why wasn't the review initiated months earlier than it was?

2. I write this with sympathy for the bureaucrats trying to enforce a relatively comprehensive policy on a piss-pot budget. We spend about 1.5 percent as much on environment as we do on sick care---prevention is not our strong suit. Many of the changes NSE recommends are to improve efficiency, which isn't a bad idea.

But what do we lose when, with our priorities chronically short-term, we review the Environment Act only every 10 years and introduce enforcement tools designed to avoid spending time and money in court, as the department proposes?

There is plenty of justification for cutting back on admin work created by an act that is supposed to be about keeping land, air and water healthy. Enforcement officers would rather be kicking industrial tailpipe than intervening in neighbourhood disputes over barking dogs and "chimineas"---backyard fireplaces. But is cutting back on paperwork the best we can do?

Errington explains that there was a "a six-year long, extensive review in 2006, which included broad public and stakeholder consultation." Much has changed in five years: interest in urban agriculture has soared; fracking entered our lexicon; biosolids are hotly debated. At the rate we innovate ways to alter our environment, five years is forever.

Time will tell us the long-term cost---if the impact of the changes is monitored. But it's a hell of a position to put someone in, to hand them a mandate involving humanity's survival and no budget. It's like asking MacGyver to catch the bad guy without duct tape.

In a scrape-by enforcement atmosphere, eco-cops and their bosses have no choice but to find shortcuts. Will it hurt? We don't know. But a proper consultation process would, rather than present a set of efficiency recommendations, give the public a plain-language act and ask them to envision a truly sustainable province.

If the bureaucracy and political machinery were open to what we the people think, our Environment Act could move from relatively comprehensive to remarkably progressive. Perhaps we'd see guaranteed investments in our paltry environmental trust fund, and a mechanism for environmental professionals to access it.

Perhaps an educational program for industry would be legislated, to help businesses minimize their impact. Maybe then a healthy, clean environment would become a right for us and an obligation for government, instead of a set of elusive goals and vague principles.

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