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More than 90 % of the thousands of new infrastructure projects across the country are slated to get funding from the Harper government without being required to undergo a federal assessment of their environmental impact, Canwest News Service has learned.
Although environmental assessments are generally required for projects that receive federal funding, exemptions were approved by Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s cabinet last spring to speed up the approval process on certain types of projects with small budgets.
The government said the small percentage of environmental assessments is the result of a program that was designed to kick-start projects and avoid extensive consultations that would “slow projects and threaten Canada’s economic recovery.”
“As such, large-scale projects that could potentially impact the environment were generally not eligible for the infrastructure stimulus fund,” said Chris Day, a spokesman for Transport, Infrastructure and Communities Minister John Baird. “They may be considered for funding under other envelopes with longer timelines.”
As a result, out of more than 3,000 projects that were approved for funding under the government’s multibillion-dollar infrastructure stimulus fund this year, only two % will go through a federal process to evaluate their environmental footprint, according to Mr. Day.
Meanwhile, only 15 % of more than 1,200 projects approved for funding as part of the government’s Building Canada fund for new infrastructure required the federal environmental assessment, he explained.
But some of the projects could still require a provincial assessment.
The exemptions for federal assessments were not introduced through legislation in Parliament and have been challenged in court by two environmental organizations, Ecojustice and the Sierra Club of Canada.
“It seems like they (members of the Harper government) are just making decisions arbitrarily,” said Justin Duncan, a staff lawyer at Ecojustice.
The new figures were released following a scathing report this month by the federal environment commissioner, Scott Vaughan, that questioned whether the government is doing enough to find out whether its assessments were preventing adverse environmental impacts from new projects.
Mr. Vaughan also suggested the assessment process should be improved to examine cumulative impacts of projects on a specific region or ecosystem.