February 28, 2002

Moncton Times and Transcript

‘First step’ in river study behind schedule
by Tammy Scott-Wallace

Environment Canada’s manager of labs says the federal government’s role as lead organizer in gathering experts from around the world to discuss the Petitcodiac River wasn’t intended to pressure the province into moving faster on the delayed environmental impact assessment.

Instead, Hugh O’Neil said this weekend’s conference is more a way to get the ball rolling.

“I don’t believe Environment Canada’s role is to kick anyone in the pants,” he explained. “Yes, the federal government is trying to be proactive and keep the file moving, but we’re not trying to be underhanded in any way, we simply want to move the process forward.

“We saw the need to bring the experts together to provide the information needed for the EIA process. I’m not in a position to say how the federal government feels one way or another on the province’s action so far.”

Spearheaded by Environment Canada and the Department of Fisheries and Oceans, Ottawa will foot a bill in the vicinity of $55,000 as host of the world’s leading experts in the field of computerized modelling for water systems. The provincial Departments of Environment and Transportation are assisting in the planning of the workshop.

O’Neil said this weekend’s modelling workshop, which has been a sore point for local stakeholders like the Town of Riverview who were initially left off the guest list for the three-day event, is needed before the EIA can begin.

“The Petitcodiac River is a very unique system because of the sediment and tidal aspect,” he said. “It’s a technical, scientific workshop, not an issues workshop.

“We want to know what’s done in other parts of the world when scientists and engineers tackle similar rivers,” he continued.

The conference, to begin Sunday, will include the experts going on a field trip to the Petitcodiac River to examine the causeway and both the headpond and river. They will brainstorm to come up with ways a virtual river can best be created on computer featuring the measurements and qualities of the Petitcodiac River.

The process is already behind schedule. When Eugene Niles released a report a year ago, it suggested an extensive study like an EIA would have to be completed on the deteriorating river to determine the effects of the causeway gates being fully opened, partially opened or completely closed.

In November, the provincial and federal government agreed to share the $2.9-million cost for an extensive EIA to be completed by the fall of 2004.

While the general timelines laid out in November said by this point the model workshop should have been completed, a facilitator announced, and public consultations held, none of that has yet been done.

According to Jason Humphrey, spokesman for the Department of Environment and Local Government, the model workshop the province is helping plan is the preliminary step in the EIA. He said in about two weeks, a facilitator will be announced and public consultation will begin in March.

“When you do these things, there’s always going to be some scheduling changes,” Humphrey said. “To the public, it seems nothing has been done, but a lot of work has been done between the two levels of government (provincial and federal) behind the scenes.

“These discussions take place almost on a weekly basis to line this whole (EIA) process up.”

Daniel LeBlanc, executive director of the Petitcodiac Riverkeeper, has been invited to the conference. He says while he’s in full support of experts being brought here to ensure the best model possible is decided for the river, he feels in the spirit of the open and transparent process government promised, the conference should be open to observers.

“This organization feels the best way to solve a problem is complete transparency,” he said yesterday. “This is incredibly scientific, but it’s not above the public’s understanding.

“I think more people care when they have the perception they’re being excluded, and unfortunately that’s what’s happening here. To many people, these are fascinating subjects so we encourage the organizers to at least have the discussions open to the media.”

While LeBlanc doesn’t agree on the conference being open to invitees only, he does feel the gathering of experts is necessary.

“We certainly don’t want the Petitcodiac River to be a new modelling technique. The river can’t take that risk.

“When this modelling begins, we have to be sure it’s the best possible way available.”