OTTAWA -- A group of environmental lawyers, doctors and academics says the federal government will endanger health and safety if it curtails the environmental assessment process in a "haphazard" way.
They fear the federal government, in its zeal to streamline approvals for resource projects, is developing a process that would be blind to long-term effects on people and communities.
"We know that some of the reforms they are planning are going to drastically limit public participation and probably be at the expense of the environmental protection," said lawyer Rachel Forbes of West Coast Environmental Law.
If anything, she said, the federal government needs to strengthen public participation in environmental reviews, since local people know their environment best.
"We can't afford to get these decisions wrong -- the whole point of environmental assessment is to protect Canadians and their environment from danger," said Gideon Forman, executive director of Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment.
Ottawa is soon expected to announce changes for environmental reviews to speed up the system.
Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver says he wants to shorten time allotted to public hearings, reduce overlap with the provinces and clarify how best to consult aboriginal communities. He wants to sharpen the government's focus on major projects and not get too concerned about the small ones.
"The ultimate goal is simple in itself, but not that simple to attain: one project, one review in a clearly defined time period," he said in a speech in Calgary last week.
He says Canada is scaring away investors with convoluted and arcane procedures. Despite tinkering by several different governments over the years, including Stephen Harper's, Oliver says a major overhaul is needed to clean up and modernize the process.
But Oliver and Harper have also complained about the long list of intervenors at hearings into the Northern Gateway pipeline to the West Coast, branding them as "radicals" backed by foreign money who are needlessly delaying things.
Plus, the government cut short a parliamentary committee's hearings into reform of the Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency.
Those moves suggest Ottawa would rather push projects through without hearing much from anyone, critics say.
Oliver has said he is committed to environmental protection and to hearing from "legitimate" interests and aboriginal people, but wants a process that can't be hijacked by special interests.
-- The Canadian Press