(Originally posted on ClimateWire on Wednesday, July 2, 2014)
Henry Gass, E&E reporter
Melting snow is an annual spring annoyance across Canada, but last year on an Indian reservation in northern Ontario, it triggered a state of emergency.
Rapidly melting snow in the Attawapiskat First Nation shut down schools, backed up sewage in people's homes and triggered the evacuation of a hospital. Less than three months later, a mine near the impoverished reservation unearthed the biggest diamond ever pulled from Canadian soil.
That single months long span illustrates the balance the Ontario provincial government is trying to strike as it pledges -- off the back of a convincing election victory in June -- to ramp up mineral resources development in the province's pristine northern regions. But some environmental groups are already worried that while the province dreams of jobs, infrastructure and even more mineral riches, northern communities like Attawapiskat will continue to suffer.
The 35-carat diamond discovered last year will be carved down to a clean 15 carats -- according to the Toronto Star -- and a new paper from researchers at two Canadian environmental groups suggests the Ontario government needs to take a similarly slow and measured approach to resource development in the north, to avoid a haphazard and turbulent process that could devastate the ecologically sensitive region known as the "Ring of Fire."
'There isn't really a plan'
In June, the Liberal Party won re-election with a healthy majority in the Ontario legislature, in large part thanks to strong support from the heavily populated Greater Toronto area. In her victory speech on election night, new Premier Kathleen Wynne reiterated her campaign promise to "build Ontario up."
"You voted for jobs, you voted for growth," Wynne told the crowd, according to the Canadian Broadcasting Corp. "We are going to build Ontario up for everyone in this province, everyone. We're not going to leave anyone behind."
The report, authored by researchers from Wildlife Conservation Society Canada and Ecojustice, calls for something similar when it comes to development of the Ring of Fire. The Victor mine near Attawapiskat -- operated by multinational diamond corporation De Beers -- is one of the few mines in a region that is almost half-water and half-land. The area is inhabited by multiple protected species, including caribou, wolverines and polar bears, and contains some of the world's largest carbon stocks in its forests, peatlands and permafrost.
During her campaign, Wynne pledged $1 billion for an all-weather road to help facilitate industrial development in the Ring of Fire -- contingent on matching funds from the federal government -- and promised to create a Ring of Fire development corporation. The provincial legislature will consider approval of the development funds.
Cheryl Chetkiewicz, a conservation scientist at WCS Canada and co-author of the report, said that development in northern Ontario is following the same fragmented, siloed process that has characterized development in other areas of Canada and, so far, in the Ring of Fire.
"There isn't really a plan," Chetkiewicz said. She added, "If we're going to invite this kind of development in, we argue that we need a much more regional, future-looking plan at doing that."
The paper suggests formulating regional strategic environmental assessments for future projects, which would study not only the local environmental impacts but also the cumulative impacts of development in a region. Local First Nations communities in northern British Columbia have criticized natural gas development there because the cumulative impacts of dozens of new drilling leases were never assessed before approval (ClimateWire, Oct. 7, 2013).
And there is also something of a legal basis for what the WCS-Ecojustice paper calls for. There are four separate pieces of legislation that outline slightly different environmental planning processes, and the 2010 Far North Act requires a community land use plan while enabling the provincial government to ask for a broader, regionwide plan.
"There has to be a real commitment and interest from the government to apply things this way," Chetkiewicz said.
But the province is working to expand the Far North Land Use Strategy beyond community land use plans, according to Jolanta Kowalski, a spokeswoman for the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources. The plan is "a community-led, consensus-based process and uses the traditional knowledge of the community members," Kowalski said in an email.
"We are working to develop the Far North Land Use Strategy, which will provide guidance to joint planning teams on integrating matters that are beyond the geographic scope of individual community based land use plans," she added.
'Ideally' a more streamlined process
The Ring of Fire development plan should also formulate how northern communities will continue to benefit from the development even through mining's notorious boom-bust cycle and when mines go dry completely, the paper said.
"There are lots of examples where you build roads to mines and then the mines go and the roads sit there, and you have ghost towns all over the place," Chetkiewicz said.
"First Nations are not going to pick up and go when mining goes away," she added.
A possible answer could be found in a system similar to Alaska's Permanent Fund, which every year gives residents a slice of the state's oil and gas development revenue. Last year, each eligible Alaskan received $900.The paper also stressed that the noneconomic values of the region need to be incorporated into predevelopment environmental assessments. The 35-carat diamond could be worth millions of dollars, but how valuable are the Ring of Fire's stocks of sequestered carbon?
"It doesn't have to be monetized," said Anastasia Lintner, a staff lawyer at Ecojustice and co-author of the paper. "[But] we shouldn't only consider the financial value of the mineral resources that have yet to be pulled out of the ground."
If regulatory processes get too burdensome or complicated, it's possible some developers may be scared off. Particularly when it comes to operating on tribal lands, the forests of red tape that come with developing land owned in trust by the federal government, inhabited by First Nations and bordering provinces have had a long, historic chilling effect on businesses. But Lintner said a broader environmental assessment process may actually speed up development in the Ring of Fire.
"Ideally it can create a more streamlined process for the types of development that fit," Lintner said. "What the investors and the developers are facing now is a kind of broken system that is fraught with conflict."
A broader, slower assessment process now -- that involves all affected parties and plans for short-term development as well as longer-term economic and environmental sustainability -- could save time in the future. A rushed, fragmented and haphazard development could lead to confusion, protests and lawsuits that delay development. Last year, Attawapiskat residents blockaded the main winter road leading to the Victor mine, claiming the bounty from the mine hadn't yet come back to the community, according to the Canadian Press.
"As we start to see maybe more pushback to the project-by-project-based approach, they may get more open to a regional-based process," Chetkiewicz said.
In the meantime, the fate of northern Ontario's impoverished communities remains in the balance. Attawapiskat declared another state of emergency this spring after flooding, and devastating wildfires are also becoming more of a nuisance due to warmer winters and dryer summers brought on by climate change.
"We cannot rely on individual project assessments or even community-based planning to give us the full picture of what is at stake in this vast region and what we collectively want its future to look like," the report says. "This is not a place that can be 'offset' or restored if it is damaged or destroyed by poorly planned development."
Photo credits: Banner | William Halliday © WCS Canada