BC fails to halt collapse in environmental enforcement in 2009

Last Friday (April 16th), BC’s Ministry of Environment released a press release announcing the final Compliance and Enforcement Summary for 2009, which outlines the province’s environmental enforcement figures for the year. Only the fact that it was released at about noon on a Friday might clue a reporter that the release’s figures hide another story. 

No Response Cover.jpgBut if you’ve been following this blog, you’ll know that two months ago we released an analysis of the province’s compliance and enforcement summaries.  We examined the province’s compliance and enforcement summaries since 2006 and re-examined the data behind our 2007 report, No Response, which had looked at enforcement up to 2005. 

At the beginning of March, 2010, when we wrote those blog posts, the province had only released their compliance and enforcement data for the first half of the year, so we didn’t yet have a complete picture for 2009.  But even then there were indications that 2009 might have been one of the worst years on record for environmental enforcement in the province.  From the earlier blog post about BC’s plummeting environmental enforcement:

Data from the government’s Compliance and Enforcement Summaries demonstrates that after a modest increase in enforcement activity in 2006, enforcement is again declining.

Although not all the data for 2009 has been released (as I write this only the first two quarters have been released, although I am advised that the third quarter will be released very soon), unless there is a dramatic increase in ticketing during the second half of the year, this year will see the third lowest level of enforcement action since 1990.



With all the 2009 figures now in, we can, unfortunately, confirm that 2009 did indeed have the third lowest level of enforcement (including both tickets and conviction) since 1990 – only slightly better than the second worst year (2005).  More importantly,  2009 was, again as predicted, the lowest year since 1990 for convictions.  As we explained in Why isn’t BC charging polluters, convictions are necessary to hold the really bad polluters at bay:

Charges (which result in convictions) are usually reserved for more egregious violators.  They require more preparation time, involve the expense of going to court and usually involve more serious consequences (large fines or even jail time).  When a Ministry proudly announces that an environmental statute may result in charges of up to $1-million and jail time of up to 6 months it is referring to the consequences of a conviction. …

Tickets are simply not adequate to address major violations or repeat violations – the penalties are simply too low – particularly for a business seeking to reduce its costs.  The highest possible fine under a ticket under BC’s Environmental Management Act is $575.

We’ve updated the figures discussed in the March blog posts in light of the 3rd Quarter Summary and today’s release of the 4th Quarter Summary.  Table 1 shows the overall enforcement levels – ticketing and convictions – for six main environmental statutes (Fisheries Act (Canada), Environmental Management Act, Integrated Pest Management Act, Migratory Birds Convention Act, Water Act, and the Wildlife Act).  If there had been only 51 fewer tickets or convictions in 2009, then 2009 would have beaten out 2005 – a year when the Conservation Officer Service was still chronically understaffed – as the second worst year on record (after 2004). 

Table 1 –
If you read the BC government’s press release closely, you’ll notice that they report a larger number of tickets than we do (2181).  That’s because we chose to focus on 6 major environmental statutes, while the BC government’s figures include all tickets handled by the Conservation Officer Service, including ones which are of less environmental significance, such as the Liquor Control and Licensing Act.  Overall the trend is essentially the same whether you focus on specific statutes or the tickets issued under all statutes. 

Table 2 shows the convictions.  As noted above, 2009 had the lowest number of convictions since before 1990. 

Table 2 -convctn2009.jpg

What’s really disturbing is not just that the 2009 enforcement levels are so low, but that so are the 2008 levels, and the 2007 levels, and the figures for every year since 2003.  2009 is very low, but we haven’t seen a good year of environmental enforcement for most of a decade.  Poor environmental enforcement is becoming the norm in BC. 

This problem will not be solved simply by hiring more Conservation Officers.  This has already been done, starting in 2005, and those staffing levels have been maintained.  But the funding, and Ministry infrastructure, which lets Conservation Officers get into the field and do their jobs has not been restored from when it was dramatically cut in the first half of the past decade.  And changes to BC’s environmental laws have made them more difficult to enforce at a time when the Ministry has less resources to do so. 

The result is less protection for BC’s environment, and for our health.   Fortunately West Coast Environmental Law was able to respond to the province’s press release and set the record straight