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Rubber stamp of approval

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The Clean Environment Commission's report on the environmental impacts of Manitoba Hydro's proposed transmission line was so scathing one might have thought the project was doomed. Or at least that the Crown utility would be sent back to the drawing board to redo its plan to protect the environment and people in the way of Bipole III's route.

That's precisely what many of the intervenor experts who reviewed Hydro's own environmental impact analysis told the CEC to do.

But it didn't. Instead, the "arm's-length," government-appointed commission recommended on Thursday that the Selinger government give Hydro its environmental licence to proceed.

This can only mean there was never any danger Manitoba Hydro would not get the stamp of approval from the CEC. And the reason for that is obvious: The provincial government has itself decreed Bipole III will run down Manitoba's west side, at a cost $1 billion greater than an east-side route.

So the CEC marched to the drummer's beat.

In pointing out glaring holes in Hydro's environmental statement, the 159-page report underscores Hydro's disinterest in proving how it can protect the environment and the people who live, farm, hunt, fish and work there from any ill effects of the line.

"It appears at times from reading that (Hydro's) environmental impact statement that Manitoba Hydro's approach to environmental assessment of the Bipole III project was not to find potential impacts, but to find ways of showing that there will be no impact," the report says.

The Crown corporation engaged in shoddy consultation with those affected. Individual property owners were not consulted, but welcomed to town-hall-type meetings where information basically flowed one way -- from Hydro to farmers. Agents visited the property owners and told them they might as well co-operate in discussions of financial compensation because the line was coming through whatever they thought.

First Nations whose traditional territories would be affected were asked to contribute their traditional knowledge to the environmental impact statement, all the while the transmission line's routing was being firmed up. That meant their contributions, some of which the CEC found of high value, arrived at the end of the process.

Hydro's assessment of impact on animal life was equally wanting, and, the CEC found, packed with meaningless detail so as to make the effects look as insignificant as possible.

"Some of the (animals), such as the beaver and mallard, are numerous and adaptable and unlikely to be affected by such a development. Some... such as the northern prairie skink, are found in the larger project study area, but not in the local study area adjacent to the final preferred route. Others, such as three species of butterfly (the Dakota, ottoe and uncas skipper) and the burrowing owl, are not found in the local study area, the project study area, or even in Manitoba."

In the end, the CEC did Hydro's work for it. It gathered the necessary details it needed to support a foregone conclusion.

The fact it recommended a licence be granted -- with 29 conditions, including eight route adjustments -- should cause the objective observer to think twice about how long is that arm between government and the CEC.

The logical conclusion is the process was a sham, a pretense tailored to the Selinger government's decree to build Bipole III in the wrong place at an exorbitant price to carry power from two new dams that have yet to be approved.

The NDP may be pleased with this result. Manitobans, on the other hand, have more evidence this government is not interested in dispassionate, cautious oversight of Hydro's multibillion-dollar development plans for new power generation. When watchdogs are reduced to whimpering lapdogs, ratepayers should be alarmed.

Editorials are the consensus view of the Winnipeg Free Press’ editorial board, comprising Catherine Mitchell, David O’Brien, Shannon Sampert, and Paul Samyn.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition July 13, 2013 A16

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