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Protecting coastal waters

NDP MP defends her private members' bills to protect BC environment.

Dateline: Monday, November 05, 2007

by Diane Walsh

MP Denise Savoie, a savvy, not-so-easily-scared-off, NDP politician, has faced a mudslide of controversy in Victoria's Times Colonist in recent months, as well as virulent criticism from the right wing, for two motions she proposed on coast water protection.

Independent journalist Diane Walsh interviewed Denise Savoie on Straight Goods' behalf.

Diane Walsh: How do we, as a society, balance the need to promote industrial and tourist activities (for the sake of the economy) while at the same time make sure we protect our coast water's ecological integrity — in this case, the invisible underwaters?


I rethink what really constitutes quality of life: ie do we really need all the products advertising tells us we need?

Denise Savoie: There are two parts to my answer. First, the dichotomy between economics and the health of our environment is exaggerated. The Conservatives like to paint us as living in caves if we take smart action and invest in renewable energies and effective energy saving programs that would help families and businesses transition. I recently held a green business event and heard some interesting comments from some businesses that have adopted more sustainable practices. They said that the risks involved in adopting more sustainable practices were largely perceived risks. The potential loss in sales or productivity, when people consume less and live more sustainably, can be turned to the advantage of "green" and ethical businesses, as they create more value in their services and products and hence goodwill for their business — ultimately drawing more loyalty from customers and staff.

The same applies to our coast. The short-term gains from oil-related activity, while tempting to some, will be seen for what they are, in any big picture accounting, which truly values and does not discount the service we get from our natural environment.

The second part of my answer is that as a society I think we will have to rethink some basic premises on which we operate, and rethink what really constitutes quality of life: ie do we really need all the products advertising tells us we need? Should we not take holidays closer to home, instead of jetting to Mexico every Christmas, etc? Perhaps having fewer things, maybe a little less money and spending more time closer to home with our families and playing with our kids, would result in a happier, less stressed-out society.

DW: How do we efficiently and systemically administer the hassle of penalties and log-jam regulations deriving from various types of legislation that are (or will be) ignored or that are (at best) extremely difficult to enforce?

DS: I think we have to distinguish between regulation that really protects the public interest and that which just adds bureaucracy without real benefit. We should remember that it is regulations that are credited for beginning to address the ozone hole and production of CFCs and they have proven the only effective tool in tackling that problem.

DW: Given the strength of the attitude held by big business — that "if you don't see it you don't know its effect" — and the sheer power of industrial companies, how do ordinary people wishing to protect the waters fare in the face of these enormous capital interests?

DS: Not easily — but the interests are not as incompatible as they seem. For example, the tourist lobby was a major force in getting upgraded sewage treatment. Tourists do not want to pollute, or to be in a polluted area, once they know it is polluted.

DW: What pressures have actually been seen to work as far as enforcing oil businesses to behave in accord with public interest?

DS: First, I should say that the marine industry has generally responded to the threat of high fines for poor liquid waste management (eg oil slicks) by being more careful with liquid wastes.

And secondly there have long been subsidies to the oil and gas industry by this government and former liberal government with no explanation of why the most profitable industries in Canada are still receiving subsidies. After the pressure we've exerted in the House about this, the Conservatives announced they will begin to phase them out starting a few years from now.

With groups like Pembina Institute, we made the issue of subsidies very public on the radio and in the media; it had long been kept very quiet. So the public also started to write expressing concern. So you see, the public did react to our information, and we did get a government response — albeit still pretty weak and unconvincing action on their part to transition from a polluting one to a clean economy.

DW: Do moratoriums not just push the date forward as far the inevitable happening? Does this not accept on the face of it the idea that drilling will need to occur one way or another — one day — somewhere when the bulk of the people are not mobilized enough to prevent it?

DS: Not necessarily. A moratorium provides a period of sober second thought on important issues. It allows time for proper risk assessment and public debates on issues, where there is a potential for a poorly informed or biased decision. It also allows time for public comments on proposals. The motion I put forward was to allow public discussion now in the form of public hearings so that we can hear about the long-term impacts of a potential oil spill. The outcome of the discussion could be to introduce a permanent ban on tanker traffic along the west coast if the risk is considered too high.

From what I've found out recently in doing some research, all this talk of clean up at the moment is just talk. Cleanup of oil spills is just not possible. It is now generally accepted that even the best response achievable would recover only 15 percent of the spilled oil — that would be in ideal conditions. In the stormy conditions of the Central Coast that figure is likely to be much less.

DW: What do we say to critics of your private member's bill when they point to the abysmal state of affairs re: raw sewage funneling directly into the ocean around Victoria?

DS: We say that one bad decision doesn't justify another.

DW: How can we respond to this sort of issue deflection, which some argue highlights the hypocrisy of the local environmental situation?

DS: By working to correct the problem, not deflecting it. But you're right. There has been a lot of hypocrisy by some local politicians.

At the same time, any survey I've seen has shown that when there is no obfuscation of an issue as there has been in the past with this one, (ie the explanation by the Capital Regional District in the past that there was no problem — now contradicted by evidence that what we've done through our medieval outfall practices is create a contaminated site right off our shores) the public will opt for the right decision.

DW: What sort of leg do we have to stand on when we are only beginning to talk about the need for massive infrastructure overhaul of our own city's sewage outlet design?

DS: The issue is moving forward as far as I can see because of the contaminated sites legislation. There is now a requirement and a timeline for Victoria's sewage to be treated.

DW: What do we say to the opponents? They are, first, those who are opposed to any heavy promotion of more cruise ships approaching our docks, believing that industry needs to be trained to be eco-minded and carefully monitored. And second, they are those who want to promote tourism in way we can even if it means accepting unregulated dumping (the price to pay for visitor's spending their dollar in BC).

DS: There can be no license to pollute. The future of the cruise ship industry will depend on their meeting environmental regulation. Industries that diminish our environmental capital will be increasingly called to account. Within this regulation, it is likely that some companies will try harder than others. Denying privileges to those who make less effort is a common strategy of encouragement towards objectives. In all areas of development, high environmental standards are being recognized and codified.

We have LEEDS buildings (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design). Why not LEEDS ships?

Diane Walsh is an independent journalist based in Victoria, BC.

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