Nova Scotia

No clear timeline on updates to environmental assessment process

As some Nova Scotians cry for an overhaul of the environmental assessment process, which they say is outdated and ineffective, the province cannot say when it will update the system.

Environmental assessments are meant to ensure companies operate within provincial regulations and don’t cause collateral damage to people and the natural environment.

The Environmental Goals and Climate Change Reduction Act, passed in 2021 with all-party support, sets a goal of modernizing environmental assessments by this year. The act does not lay out any recourse if the goal is not met.

A spokesperson for the Department of Environment said the work “is ongoing and is one of many files staff are working on. As soon as decisions are made, we will communicate them.”

Karen McKendry, senior wilderness outreach co-ordinator at the Ecology Action Centre in Halifax, said she’s hopeful changes are coming.

One of the changes at the top of her list, however, is not likely to happen.

Public comment period not under review

When applications for an environmental assessment are made, a 30-day window opens for the public to comment. McKendry says that’s not long enough. Applications often include a primary document with hundreds or thousands of pages, plus appendices, with lots of jargon.

“We hear over and over again that 30 days is too short,” she said in an interview. “It’s too short a time to find out about it, change your life around, spend a lot of time reading these technical documents, comment when you can, and also try to find help on some of the really technical stuff.”

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But the comment period is not part of the department’s review.

Karen McKendry is the senior wilderness outreach co-ordinator at the Ecology Action Centre. (Mark Crosby/CBC)

Environment Minister Tim Halman said he doesn’t see a problem with the time frame.

“Certainly I feel it’s a robust system, a strong system of engagement to solicit feedback from the public,” he told reporters following a cabinet meeting this week.

McKendry said she’s been a keen observer of projects going through environmental assessment for about six years, and often works with people and communities who are looking for help to have their concerns heard and addressed.

Quarry expansion

The latest call for help came from people living in Little Dyke, N.S., where a rock quarry recently applied to expand its operation.

Members of the surrounding community in Colchester County are worried about noise, air pollution and heavy truck traffic.

They have until July 6 to submit their comments, and the minister is set to make a decision by July 26. 

Terms and conditions are ‘copy and paste’

McKendry said based on the high rate of approvals she’s observed, she expects this one will be approved, too. 

Approvals typically come with terms and conditions, and McKendry said she sees the same or similar terms and conditions applied to many projects.

“Those have become increasingly sort of copy and paste without a lot of specifics. And there would be specifics there if they took the recommendations of the community seriously,” she said.

A bald man.
Nova Scotia Environment Minister Tim Halman is pictured at a daily scrum of ministers at the Nova Scotia legislature on April 20, 2022. (Robert Short/CBC)

Halman would not comment on the quarry expansion because it’s an open file. But he said, generally, he’s “very open-minded,” and takes feedback into consideration.

McKendry said the quarry expansion is different from most of the projects she sees because it marks the second time this community has engaged in an environmental assessment.

The quarry last applied for an expansion in 2017.

a bird's eye view of a quarry, trees and homes
OSCO Aggregates Ltd., runs the quarry on Little Dyke Road in Nova Scotia’s Colchester County. People living near here are upset about a proposed expansion of the mining operation. (Brian MacKay/CBC)

“This is not a new game for us,” said Harvey MacEachern, who has lived in Little Dyke for about 30 years.

And yet he still describes the process as overwhelming.

“The average person doesn’t have the time. We’re staying up late to pore over [the application] to see if we can figure it out, to understand it,” said MacEachern.

A man stands in front of a lake on a sunny day.
Harvey MacEachern has lived in Little Dyke, N.S., for 30 years. (Taryn Grant/CBC)

The application from OSCO Aggregates Ltd., the Irving-owned company that applied to expand the quarry, says excavation of the land could continue until 2055.

MacEachern said he’s worried this 30-day period is the last time he and his neighbours will have a say in the operation until 2056. 

“That’s not acceptable.”

Not only does he think there should be more time for the public to digest applications and submit feedback, he said he’d like the government to share more information about ongoing operations.

truck on a dirt road near a sign
A truck pulls out from OSCO Aggregates Ltd. on June 27, 2024. (Brian MacKay/CBC)

“How about the compliance? How about the followup? How about people out here monitoring what they said they’re going to do?”

MacEachern said he’d like to be able to easily access information about the quarry’s efforts to mitigate environmental effects.

A group of people stand holding signs of protest against a rock quarry.
Some of the people who live in Little Dyke, N.S., are opposed to the expansion of a rock quarry in their community. (Taryn Grant/CBC)

A spokesperson for the Department of Environment said companies are legally required to comply with the terms and conditions of environmental assessments, and there is “a stringent and robust” system for inspection, compliance and enforcement.

OSCO said in a statement that the company is “committed to implementing best practices and taking all necessary measures to protect the well-being of our community and the environment, including regular water monitoring and testing.”

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