Environmental Disasters Are About Responsible Governance

04/23/2015 04:39 pm ET | Updated Jun 23, 2015

Vancouverites are angry. And we should be. The release of bunker fuel into the sanctuary of English Bay, and its aftermath, have highlighted a reckless, heady and myopic approach to economic development characteristic of decision-makers with nothing to lose, for it is we who bear the risk. This writer does not suggest that it is wise or, indeed, possible to turn off the taps of oil that will be burgeoning through our waterways at increasing levels in years to come. We sit on the coronary artery supplying the beating heart of Canada's economy. But it is foolish to suggest we must do so without adequate protective measures. It is simply irresponsible governance.

Our elected leaders are behaving like thieves in the night, terrified the bounty will be exhausted by the dawn, rather than statesmen executing sound economic and social policy. They take negligible protective measures when executing same policy and fail to explain why the two must be mutually exclusive. As Mr. Harper's Conservatives impose greater risks to our province without the corresponding protections necessary, it becomes clear that this issue is not merely about pipelines or tar sands or climate change or political economic ideology; this is about responsible governance. We depend upon our elected leaders to govern responsibly. We demand this.

Responsible governance means consulting with communities on the ground and making key decisions in collaboration with stakeholders, not in spite of them. It means engaging all levels of government when making decisions that affect the people they represent. It is to engage evidence-based science in order to make sound policy decisions. It is to ensure that after a thoughtful and inclusive process, if necessary risks are to be undertaken, then corresponding protections must accompany those risks. It is to be certain of the plan of execution if catastrophe befalls us.

The governance model of the Harper Conservatives, built upon the twin pillars of secrecy and fear, is to keep us in the dark about the very issues that matter most of all: our health, our families, our environment and our homes. The Conservatives' single-minded path to economic development means paving over the people of British Columbia rather than collaborating with them. At every step of the way, this government has sought to change facts on the ground rather than engage communities.

We saw it when they hollowed out the environmental review process, extracting key stakeholders from the judicial process of the National Energy Board and relegating the Board to a symbolic role, while placing final decision-making power with the Harper cabinet. We saw it again this week when it took twelve hours for federal bodies to inform the City of Vancouver of what was happening in its own backyard.

Good governance means embracing an environmental review process that includes the people and governments who are most affected by proposed projects, rather than one that robs stakeholders of their voices. It requires taking calculated risk. Assessing risk as if it were your backyard, your neighbours, your people who stand to pay the price. Refusing to gamble recklessly with the well-being of those who have placed their trust in you.

It means understanding risk before undertaking it. Kinder Morgan's increase in tar sands tanker traffic through Burrard Inlet would add approximately 400 more tankers to the harbour annually, each carrying 600,000 barrels of tar sands oil, or three times as much as was spilled in the catastrophic Exxon Valdez spill. In spite of this, the Conservatives chose to close the Kitsilano Coast Guard Station and the Vancouver Marine Communication Terminal in the Vancouver harbour, shifting the responsibility to stations in Richmond and on Vancouver Island. Indeed, it was a recreational boater who finally spotted the spilling fuel this past week in the waters of the busiest port in Canada.

Although Mr. Harper continues to trumpet a "world-class spill response system", we have learned that it took six hours -- a response that by account of former commander of the closed station ought to have taken six minutes- for the Coast Guard to get booms in place to respond to this relatively minor spill of fuel- not oil- within sight of the city center. At the same time, Kinder Morgan has been permitted to keep their emergency response plan under a veil of secrecy, refusing the provincial government's demands for the details of that plan and denying BC citizens the right to assess the risk. These failings leave British Columbians feeling helpless and in the dark about the realities of the risks under their own roof.

Vancouverites know the healing route along the winding seawall, ebbing and flowing into land and water as if to mirror the synching waves. We know the chilled breeze as we round the corner of "palm tree rock" and briefly slip away from the sun's beam. We know the glorious sight that overwhelms us as we round the next corner and enter the sun's grace again. We know the smiles and the ease with which we greet one another along this stretch of nature preserved and protected in our city. We know how our feet slip on the lichen-coated stones and how, when the tide is out, we can walk outwards on the rocks until nothing separates us from the expansive ocean. We are deeply and personally connected to this place that brings us so much joy and asks for nothing in return but mutual respect.

Even at this early stage, it is clear from the Coast Guard's statements that we simply won't know how much fuel was released by the ship responsible for the recent spill, or how much may have sunk beyond the reach of clean-up crews. More than 4,000 people have volunteered to help with the clean-up efforts. Such acts of engagement and personal responsibility make me incredibly proud to be a member of this community. But it is not right to depend on members of our community to clean up the federal government's mess. As we round the corner of this clean-up, it's time to clean up the mess in Ottawa so that we can protect the people of British Columbia from an environmental and economic catastrophe.