Squamish resort raises questions about EA process

There was a fascinating article in the Vancouver Sun on May 19th: B.C. regulators give failing grade to proposed $2.9B Whistler-like resort. The story concerns the Garibaldi at Squamish resort project (GAS) and what seems to be a half-hearted environmental assessment by the company.

It’s not the first time that we’ve come across GAS. West Coast was contacted by Catherine Jackson of the Squamish Environmental Conservation Society (SECS) about this project in 2008. At the time the provincial Environmental Assessment Office (EAO) appeared to have accepted GAS’s suggestion that outstanding issues could be addressed after the environmental assessment was complete on what was described as a “move forward” basis. I wrote to the EAO:

The environmental assessment process is not merely a series of hurdles that a project proponent needs to jump through. It is intended to ensure that the cumulative impacts of a project are considered comprehensively and at an early stage in the process. In my view the move forward process proposed by the Proponent in this case in relation to water supply entirely misunderstands that purpose. I urge you to rectify the situation by again suspending the assessment process until the required information on water systems has been assembled and is available for public comment.

Shortly thereafter the EAO did suspend the environmental assessment, forcing GAS to conduct more detailed water monitoring. West Coast has since provided SECS with a grant through our Environmental Dispute Resolution Fund to examine the legality of the environmental assessment process to date if the project is approved.

All indications are that the EAO has continued to be concerned about the lack of detail in this assessment. In January of this year the Squamish Chief quoted the EAO as being concerned about “inconsistencies” in the assessment:

The GAS report stated four of the proposed five dams – including two previously unmentioned 50-metre structures – would be erected on terrain that consultants had previously deemed too hazardous to build on.

“No explanation has been provided… as to why these developments are not subject to the development constraints described in the earlier report,” stated the EA working group’s Dec. 17 letter to George McKay, GAS’s vice president of project approvals.

“This creates considerable uncertainty about the proposed dam locations (and the associated hazard intensity and hazard consequences), particularly since two of these structures are now proposed to be 50 m high and are located upstream from proposed residential and commercial areas.”

And now the EAO seems to be questioning its legal role when faced with a fundamentally incomplete project: “The assessment office questions whether it has the authority to recommend such a move.” West Coast has referred to this project in the past as demonstrating the flaws with the BC Environmental Assessment Act for precisely that reason:

The assessment of the proposed Garibaldi at Squamish resort is being characterized by major changes and continuing uncertainty about how water, waste disposal and other impacts of the proposed 22,000 bed unit ski development will be handled. Despite the EAO’s concerns, the Act requires the EAO to prepare its report in accordance with the Act’s time-lines. The lack of information undermines the public’s ability to comment meaningfully on the project.

Representatives of the BC Ministry of Environment are quoted in the Sun article as suggesting that the final report may differ from the draft report received by the Sun. If this turns out to be the case, that would raise disturbing questions about why any major revisions were made and the independence of the EAO.

West Coast is trying to obtain a copy of the draft report, and look forward to receiving a copy of the final report. It sounds as if the EAO’s efforts to grapple with this environmental assessment is bringing to light many of the flaws in the current Environmental Assessment Act. We will keep you updated as information becomes available.