Uncertainty in EIA – Do we really want to know?

by: Adam Pinchefsky

The goal of Environmental Impact assessment (EIA) is to assess the socio-economical  / bio-physical impacts of proposed projects and offer ways to mitigate those impacts. One issue that many people have with EIA is the inherent uncertainty in almost every fabric of the process. EIA practitioners must make predictions based on the information available to them and the understanding of the environmental systems present in the project area. The information available to EIA practitioners is often incomplete and has uncertainty present in the way the data was collected and in the data itself. Environmental systems are not perfectly understood and possibly might never be, thus uncertainty exists in the models of these systems that practitioners use to make their decisions. Lastly, we come to the word “prediction”, which in itself eludes to uncertainty. The unavoidable uncertainty in EIA predictions is well-known among EIA practitioners and those familiar with EIA (1).

It has become very common that public policy decisions are heavily influenced by scientific expertise (2). Policy decisions in regards to EIA’s are no different. The science of the natural world is used to model the effects that projects will have on the environment and how these changes will subsequently affect us. These models are then used to generate various scenarios of the effects that the project will have and the data generated by these models are presented to decision makers, which they use to decide if the project should go ahead, go ahead with changes, or be denied. Uncertainty in EIA is generally not communicated or poorly communicated to decision makers, where it is assumed that decision makers know of the uncertainty in the information (2). Often times, when uncertainty is mentioned, the breakdown of the origin of the uncertainty or the justification for that uncertainty is missing (2).

science and policy

Source: Roger Pielke, Jr.

The big question here is: Do decision makers REALLY want to know about the uncertainties in EIA? At first glance, I thought that this was a simple question, with the obvious answer being that decision makers would want all the available information and the uncertainty that goes along with it to make the best decision possible. However, after thinking about the question further, I started to doubt my initial answer to that question. The decision maker is accountable for their decision and too much information and uncertainty can complicate the decision-making process by increasing the effort required to fully understand the information that they are presented with. Decision makers when seeing that there is uncertainty in the predictions, might air on the side of caution and choose the safer option, even though it might not be the best option given the information presented because they might not fully understand what the uncertainty means.

uncertainty owl

Source: Tanya Stan

A situation where there is too much information to process which hinders the ability to make sensible decisions is called “Information Overload” (3). By including all the uncertainty inherent in all the aspects of the EIA process, the complexity of the problem is expanded by adding on more information that the decision maker must take into account (3). This overload of information can lead to the decision maker being unable to come to the best decision. The uncertainty in the data that is presented to the decision maker will increase their own uncertainty about what is best with regards to the project.

At the end of the day, it comes down to whether or not the added benefit of knowing the uncertainty of the information presented in EIA documentation is worth the added complexities and difficulties that decision makers must work through to come to a decision. I personally believe that uncertainty should be included in EIA documents but should be stated in a simple and clear way, with an explanation of what the uncertainty means so that it is as easy as possible for decision makers to read and understand. Although uncertainty adds an extra layer of complexity to the decision-making process, projects can have significant effects on the environment and decision makers should have all pertinent information in order to come to a logical, well thought out decision. The possibility of making a wrong decision due to missing information is greater than the possibility of making a wrong decision with as much information as possible, even with the possibility of information overload.


1- Tenney, Aud, Kvaerner, Jens & Djerstad, Karl Idar, 2006. Uncertainty in environmental impact assessment predicitions: the need for better communication and more transparency. Impact Assessment and Project Appraisal. Volume 24, number 1, 45-56.

2- Hellström, Tomas & Jacob, Merle, 1996. Uncertainty and values: The case of environmental impact assessment. Knowledge and Policy. Volume 9, Issue 1, 70-84.

3- Infoengineering. Understanding Information Overload.

Pielke Jr., Roger. The Linear Model of Science and Decision Making, 14 June, 2010. http://rogerpielkejr.blogspot.ca/2010/06/linear-model-of-science-and-decision.html>

Stan, Tanya. Uncertainty Factors used to Ensure Protection of Public Health. Based on Chapter 14-4: Toxicity Assessment, 4 september, 2010. <Accessed January 19, 2014: http://risketm525.blogspot.ca/2010/09/uncertainty-factors-used-to-ensure.html>

Integrating Rapid Environmental Assessment and Community EA for Post-Disaster Rehabilitation

Natural disasters like tsunamis or earthquakes can devastate large populations and in some cases entire countries. In states of emergency, we must account for many things such as people’s lives and health, infrastructure damage, natural resources and contamination. However, it can be difficult to keep track and prioritize these things in many cases. With natural disaster and environmental awareness on the rise, environmental assessment is starting to be used in a post-disaster context [1]. It can help identify the degree of damage and assess the resources still intact as they may be important for reconstruction and rehabilitation, as well as identifying community concerns so that disaster victims can start to rebuild their lives.


A coastal Indonesian village devastated by the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami.

Standard EIA procedure in a post-disaster situation is not always suitable. There are several contextual differences to consider when performing an EA post-disaster rather than a standard EIA. These differences are outlined in the table below. Natural disasters rarely allow for any planning and fast action is often needed in these urgent situations. After basic human needs are met (food, water, shelter), rapid environmental assessment (REA) should be used as soon as possible, typically within 120 days of the disaster occurrence [2]. REA is a tool to identify and prioritize environmental damage as well as social and economic impacts [3]. Relief efforts will be more effective in the long run if these issues are identified early on because the information gathered from the REA can be incorporated into plans for rebuilding. Since certain areas have higher risks for natural disasters, information collected in a REA can help to better prepare for a future disaster [4].

Although REA helps to identify environmental issues and damage, it does not propose solutions to these problems [5]. There needs to be an additional process to put the information obtained in the REA to use. After the initial emergency response following a disaster, there are many urgent, small scale reconstruction projects that are needed, such as housing projects. Often times following a disaster EIA legislation is suspended, or there may not be enough time or human resources to conduct a full EIA. Community environmental assessment would be a good process to follow REA in a post disaster context. Community EA is local and project-related and has a large emphasis on community involvement. Public participation is not a separate step, as in regular EA, but is the main part of the assessment. Community EA involves quick assessment of existing data, interviews and site visits rather than scientific study and analysis. Community concerns, which otherwise may have been overlooked by aid organizations, are collected, prioritized and incorporated into project design [6]. World Vision and The Canadian International Development Agency funded a project to rebuild in Layeun Village in Indonesia after the 2004 tsunami destroyed four coastal villages nearby. At the time, Indonesian EA laws had been suspended.  A community approach was taken and several concerns were identified, such as lack of gardening space around the home, which families rely on to be self-sufficient; proximity of outdoor latrines to kitchen windows, which could cause a foul odor; and accessibility of the land plots [7]. Their concerns could then be incorporated into the project design.

By using REA we can assess damage, prioritize relief efforts and identify safe and suitable locations for temporary or permanent resettlement. Community EA will then identify the main concerns of the residents of devastated communities. There are no doubt some weaknesses in this process: some larger and more complicated projects may require a more detailed assessment; communication and coordination may be difficult in this context; and the concerns of residents may vary greatly from person to person. It will never be easy to organize and re-establish an area after a disaster, but overall the integration of these two assessments in a disaster situation could help with the sustainable rebuilding of communities and restoration of livelihoods.


[1] Gore, T. & Fischer, T. (2013). Policy Integration between EA and Disaster Management. IAIA 2013 Annual Conference Draft Paper. Retrieved from http://www.iaia.org/conferences/iaia13/DraftPapers.aspx.

[2] Kelly, C. (2003). Guidelines for Rapid Environmental Impact Assessment in Disasters. Benfield Hazard Research Center. Retrieved from http://www.forcedmigration.org/sphere/pdf/shelter/benfieldhazard/rea-guidelines-4-2.pdf.

[3] UNHCR (n.d.) Framework for assessing, monitoring and evaluating the environment in refugee-related operations. United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. Retrieved from http://www.unhcr.org/4a9690239.html 

[4] Kelly, C. (2003).

[5] Kelly, C. (2003).

[6] Spaling, H., & Vroom, B. (2007). Environmental assessment after the 2004 tsunami: a case study, lessons and prospects. Impact Assessment and Project Appraisal25(1), 43-52.

[7] Spaling, H., & Vroom, B. (2007).

Is EIA a fool’s paradise for conservationists?

Is it naive to believe that environmental impact assessment (EIA) serves as a tool to conserve biodiversity? Given EIA’s primary purpose, which is to reduce the negative impacts of proposed developments on the natural environment, this idea is not far-fetched. However, in practice, biodiversity has yet to be successfully and effectively incorporated into the EIA process. A few authors have identified the major problems associated with how biodiversity issues are being addressed in EIA [4] [8] [12]. A poor understanding of the concept of biodiversity, a lack of appropriate methodologies, and a deficiency in assessments at the ecosystem level are listed as key reasons for why biodiversity is still neglected in many environmental impact statements. Another important cause of the failure to account for biodiversity in EIA is the strong emphasis being placed on protected species [4] [6].

Threatened species lists, despite being extremely valuable tools, should not be used alone to forecast the biological effects of a proposed activity. “Why are such lists – like the famous International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List – a problem for EIA?” you might ask. First, threatened species lists are typically influenced by survey efforts, changes in biological knowledge, and the focus preferences of experts [6] [7]. Therefore, endangered species lists do not always reveal the real patterns and processes in biodiversity; rather, they tend to be biased towards research interests and funding [3]. For example, large, visible, and charismatic species are usually at the heart of threatened species lists, while insects, fungi, and invertebrates are generally overlooked [3]. Moreover, species that play a crucial role in supporting the structure of ecological communities – such as keystone species, dominant species, or indicator species – are often not legally protected. These flaws in the listing process, coupled with the misuse of threatened species lists, have the potential to intensify the threats to biodiversity instead of encouraging conservation. Put into the context of EIA, sole reliance on endangered species legislation in biodiversity assessments can lead to the following paradox: large and disruptive projects affecting only nonlisted species are more likely to be given the green light than those with small impacts on a single listed species [6].

Fig. 1: Process to list a species at risk at the federal level, in Canada [11]

Another problem with the use of threatened species lists to predict the ecological impacts of developments is that they are extremely influenced by politics. In Canada, for example, although the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC) is responsible of determining, based on rigorous and empirical criteria, whether a species should be listed or not, the Federal Cabinet has the power to override the decision (Fig. 1) [2] [3] [10]. Due to this political interference, several species that have been assessed as at risk by COSEWIC have been left off the Species at Risk Act (Fig. 2). Without legal protection, a threatened species is not entitled to benefit from a Recovery Strategy, and is thus susceptible to extinction [2]. In addition, recovery strategies are often incomplete: the ‘critical habitat’ of a species, which is defined as “the habitat that is necessary for the survival or recovery of a listed wildlife species” [9], is frequently not identified [2]. This crucial missing information could result in significant biodiversity loss if proponents are given the go-ahead on projects located in unidentified high-risk ecosystems or habitats.

Fig. 2: “Left off the List”, a report from the David Suzuki Foundation [5]

Despite living in an age of increased awareness and understanding of biodiversity, its role continues to be a recurrently neglected aspect in most EIA systems around the world. To solve this issue, many solutions have been put forward, but we have yet to apply them to the framework of EIA. Hereunder are a few recommendations to improve the proper integration of biodiversity into the process of EIA:

  • Improve legislative strategies: for example, develop biodiversity-specific legislation to give formal recognition to biodiversity [3] [12]
  • Improve CEAA’s “Guide on Biodiversity and EIA” [1]: for example, create biodiversity-specific screening criteria and detailed checklists for scoping on biodiversity, as suggested by Slootweg & Kolhoff (2003) [8]
  • Move the focus away from threatened species lists: for example, use multiple and quantitative methods in biodiversity assessments (including GIS-based ecological models as suggested by Gontier et al., 2006) [4]
  • Clarify the concept of biodiversity to avoid misinterpretations among the different groups involved in the EIA process [12]
  • Invest in a centralized, reliable, exhaustive, and accessible repository of information on wildlife species in Canada to help improve data quality and availability [12]
  • Because biodiversity depends on ecosystem integrity, conduct a strategic environmental assessment across Canada to identify no-go zones, sensitive habitats, and areas where development is encouraged [3] [4]


[1] CEAA’s “Guide on Biodiversity and EIA”:


[2] David Suzuki Foundation. (n.d.). Canada’s Species at Risk Act. Retrieved Jan. 15, 2014, from David Suzuki Foundation: http://davidsuzuki.org/issues/wildlife-habitat/science/endangered-species-legislation/canadas-species-at-risk-act/

[3] Farrier, D., Whelan, R., & Mooney, C. (2007). Threatened species listing as a trigger for conservation action. Environmental Science & Policy, 10(3), 219-229.

[4] Gontier, M., Balfors, B., & Mörtberg, U. (2006). Biodiversity in environmental assessment—current practice and tools for prediction. Environmental Impact Assessment Review, 26(3), 268-286.

[5] Plotkin, R., & Wallace, S. (2007). Left off the List: A profile of marine and northern species denied listing under Canada’s Species At Risk Act. David Suzuki Foundation.

[6] Possingham, H.P., Andelman, S.J., Burgman, M.A., Medellin, R.A., Master, L.L., & Keith, D.A. (2002). Limits to the use of threatened species lists. Trends in Ecology & Evolution, 17(11), 503-507.

[7] Rodrigues, A. S., Pilgrim, J. D., Lamoreux, J. F., Hoffmann, M., & Brooks, T. M. (2006). The value of the IUCN Red List for conservation. Trends in Ecology & Evolution, 21(2), 71-76.

[8] Slootweg, R., & Kolhoff, A. (2003). A generic approach to integrate biodiversity considerations in screening and scoping for EIA. Environmental Impact Assessment Review, 23(6), 657-681.

[9] Species at Risk Act, SC 2002, c 2.

[10] Species at Risk Act, SC 2002, c 27.

[11] Status Report of the Commissioner of the Environment and Sustainable Development: (2008). Chapter 12—Previous Audits of Responses to Environmental Petitions—Listing of Species at Risk:


[12] Wegner, A., Moore, S. A., & Bailey, J. (2005). Consideration of biodiversity in environmental impact assessment in Western Australia: practitioner perceptions. Environmental impact assessment review, 25(2), 143-162.

Small steps for the World Bank Group, still waiting on their big step

by Sara Munčs

It is not immediately obvious to most environmentalists the huge role that banks have to play in terms of achieving environmental goals. Banks, being the lenders of the money, have the power to set conditions on the money they lend. Of course, at the individual or small business scale, these conditions generally involve having a good credit rating and enough personal assets to potentially cover losses. When we look to larger scale businesses and projects these conditions start to become more demanding. The World Bank Group (WBG), among the largest financial institutions in the world, has been setting environmental conditions on their borrowers since the late 1980s.

The World Bank created its central Environmental Department in 1987 and issued its Operational Directive 4.00 on Environmental Assessment (EA) in October 1989 (1). This EA directive established a screening process undergone by all projects seeking loans, where projects posing serious or medium environmental risks (A or B category respectively) would have to undergo environmental impact assessments (1). This process has evolved and improved over time; today the International Finance Corporation’s (IFC) (one of the WBG’s member institutions) performance standards on Environmental and Social Sustainability are largely regarded as best EA practice (2). However, many ambiguities in the WBG’s EA policy have led some to question their dedication to the environment.

For one, while the WBG establishes the requirement for EA to take place and gives general guidelines and standards, it is the borrower that conducts the assessment at their own discretion (1,2). There is, therefore, room for the borrower to submit insufficient assessments and get their projects approved. Furthermore, these assessment requirements do not strictly apply to projects being funded by a financial intermediary (3). That is, when the bank funds smaller financial institutions, who play the role of intermediary between the WBG funding and the project, as is generally the case with micro, small and medium-sized projects or enterprises (SME), these projects are no longer screened directly by the bank and IFC performance standards are not a requirement (2,3). Many projects with environmental impacts can escape scrutiny in this manner. Finally the Bank, historically, has put more emphasis on mitigation measures than on pursuing alternative projects with less impact (1). This demonstrates an acceptance by the bank that development cannot take place without environmental damage: a position that should be accepted as a last resort not as an unavoidable truth (1).

The WBG does seem to be changing this idea though, as can be seen in the following video outlining their new environmental strategy, which was adopted in 2012.

The concept that real development cannot take place without some level of environmental security seems to be taking hold, and it is recognized that neglecting to account for environmental damages will only continue to exacerbate social and economic problems, particularly in the developing world  (4). This position is even being accepted by smaller scale financial institutions as demonstrated by the increasing number of banks adhering to the Equator Principles for environmental and social risk management (5). The new environmental strategy proposes a number of actions to make the world greener, cleaner and more resilient, but what do they propose in terms of EA? Despite being an already existing tool that has a number of flaws, the answer to this question is “not much”.

Capacity building (as the usual go-to solution) is suggested, particularly to deal with the second problem that was mentioned about intermediary financial institutions. The WBG proposes to help financial institutions establish Environmental and Social Management Systems and to reach Equator Principle Member status. However, if one looks at Equator Principle membership it becomes obvious that institutions from developing countries are still lagging behind: only a handful of members are from Africa and none are from Asia with the exception of Japan (5). Granted this strategy has not been in place long, but clearly capacity building needs to be stepped up a notch.

What would have even more of an impact on EA and the environment than capacity building is, of course, not even acknowledged as a problem. It is clear that the WBG is playing the role of regulating authority for the EA’s conducted for the projects it finances: The WBG determines if an EA is required or not, has guidelines regarding how the EA should be conducted and makes the decision on whether the project will be approved for funding. However, the WBG is being lazy in this role and giving the proponents too much rein in how the EA is conducted. While general guidelines are given, project specific guidelines, similar to typical terms of reference documents would perhaps be more effective at ensuring the EA process is conducted properly. The WBG has to stop taking tiny, typical steps and make more drastic changes if they really want to support sustainable development.

1-Haeuber, R.(1992) “The World Bank and Environmental Assessment: The Role of Nongovernmental Organizations” Environmental Impact Assessment Review, Vol 12: 331-337.
2- IFC (2012) IFC Peformance Standards on Environmental and Social Sustainability.
3-Faubert, K. et al. (2010) “Environmental Assessment in Multilateral Development Bank Intermediary Lending” Journal of Environmental Assessment Policy and Management, Vol 12, No. 2: 131-153.
4-World Bank Group (2012) Towards a Green, Clean and Resilient World for All: A World Bank Group Environment Strategy 2012-2022.
5-Equator Principles Association (2013) “Members and Reporting” Retrieved from http://www.equator-principles.com/index.php/members-and-reporting

The impact of physical barriers on Atlantics Salmon

The Atlantic Salmon Salmo salar is native to the basin of the North Atlantic Ocean (DFO 1). “ In Canada, the Atlantic Salmon occurs naturally throughout Newfoundland, Labrador, the Maritime Provinces, eastern Quebec and the Ungava region of northern Quebec” (DFO1). The Atlantic Salmon is an anadromous fish. Anadromous fishes are those fishes that go against the rivers current to tributaries in spawning grounds. “Any physical barrier such as dam, culvert, waterfall can block or hinder upstream migration” (2). Their affects may result in less number of spawning fish reach to tributaries and changing in gene pool.

School of Atlantic Salmon
D. Danvoye (DFO 1)
Marine Atlantic Salmon and landlocked salmon return from sea and lake to tributaries respectively. They spawn in October and November in Canada (DFO 1). It takes about 110 days to hatch and young salmon stay 2-8 years in rivers depending on region feeding on aquatic insect larvae (DFO 1). “Atlantic Salmon have a high degree of fidelity to their natal rivers” (DFO1).
Department Fish and Ocean (DFO 1)
“The Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC) has identified 16 designatables units (DU) of Atlantic Salmon, 11 of which are considered at risk” (DFO1). Until March 1, 2013, Fisheries and Oceans Canada was in consultation about the addition of five atlantic salmon populations to the List of Wildlife Species at Risk under the Species at Risk Act (SARA) (DFO1). ‘The Atlantic Salmon commercial fishery was closed progressively in Canadian waters from the mid-1980s until the complete closure in 2000” (DFO1).
There are several possible causes for population decline of atlantic salmon. Climatic changes, fishing, and obstacles in fresh water such as dams are some important factor for this decline (DFO1). Under the Canadian Federal Inclusion List Regulation, activities, even if they are not related to construction of a physical infrastructure but result in the destruction of fish and fish habitat needs EIA (Noble 2010). Salmon habitat is protected under the fish habitat protection provisions of the Fisheries Act (DFO1).
A possible mitigation mechanism for facilitating natural upstream migration of Atlantic Salmon is constructing fishways at dams and other physical barriers which may block or hinder their migration. A fishway is a canal that diverts an appropriate quantity of water from upper part of a barrier to the lower part. The depth and velocity of water are very important points that must take in to consideration in planning of a fishway.
Here is an example of a fishway

As an example for homologous fish, the Amir Kabir dam in Iran blocked the migration of Caspian salmon, (Salmo trutta caspius Kessler, 1877). At that time, no EIA was required for the construction. Many years after the construction, Iranian Fisheries Organization built several hatcheries and still are spending huge amount of money in hatcheries to restock Caspian salmon as well as sturgeon fishes every year for the same reason.
1- http://www.dfo-mpo.gc.ca/species-especes/species-especes/salmon-saumon-DU08-eng.htm 04/10/2013
2- Swimthrufishway.com 04/10/2013
3- Noble B.F. 2010. Introduction to environmental Impact Assessment, Oxford University Press Second edition p74.
4- http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=os1Y0S6s3fs

Will the White Whales of St. Lawrence survive?

The beluga whale (Delphinapterus leucas), also known as white whale for their distinct all-white colour, is an Arctic and sub-Arctic marine mammal. It possesses a distinctive organ at the front of its head called melon, which is used for echolocation. The size of a beluga whale is between that of a dolphin’s and a true whale’s (Wikipedia).


Image Source: National Geographic (http://animals.nationalgeographic.com/animals/mammals/beluga-whale/)

Historically, the beluga whale had a population size of about 10,000 individuals (during the 1800s) in the St. Lawrence Estuary (SLE) but currently (2003) about 1100 individuals live there (DFO, 2005).

The prime cause of their disappearance, hunting, was banned in 1979. Naturally, the population would have been expected to increase since then, but no clear sign of recovery is seen (Lebeuf et al., 2007).

Martineau et al. (2002) reported that they studied 129 beluga carcasses out of 263 reported stranded between 1983 and 1999. They found 27% of the adult belugas had cancer. The annual rate of all cancer types was much higher than any other population of cetaceans and was similar to that of humans.

High concentration of PAH(polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons) were found in the Saguenay River sediments (500-4500 ppb of total PAH); which is a part of SLE beluga habitat. These compounds originate mainly from upstream aluminum smelters. The invertebrates living in the bottom sediment accumulate PAHs and they form a significant amount of SEL beluga diet.

High rates of cancer among workers in aluminum plants have been related to PAHs epidemiologically. Martineau et al. (2002) suggested from these studies that PAHs are related to high rate of cancer in SLE belugas.

Metcalfe et al. (1999) showed that total PCB (Polychlorinated biphenyl), DDT (dichlorodiphenyl-trichloroethane) and Chlordane concentrations in SLE beluga tissues were higher compared to the Canadian Arctic belugas; which reflects the input of these chemicals into the St. Lawrence river.

A temporal trend analysis of persistent, bioaccumulative and toxic (PBT) chemicals on these whales showed that concentration of most of the PBTs in SLE beluga have decreased between 1987 and 2002; while no increasing trends were observed either (Lebeuf et al., 2007).

Yet, concentration of the toxic chemicals in beluga tissues are not decreasing quickly and new persistent contaminants are being introduced to the aquatic ecosystem. So, these contaminants accumulate in juveniles and adults through the food and in calves through their mothers. There are other threats to the beluga population too, which include marine traffic, anthropogenic noise, reduced fish population, habitat destruction etc. (DFO, 2012)

Recent news report says that since 2008, there has been an increase in the mortality rate of beluga whale calves. The report quoted Robert Michaud, scientific director of the Groupe de recherche et d’éducation sur les mammifères marins (GREMM), who informed that since 2005, along with increasing mortality rate of calves, a lot of female belugas are dying during, before or after giving birth. He also informed that, there has been no surveys since 2009 (CBC News, 2013).


Image Source: CBC News, 2013.

Fisheries and Oceans Canada proposed long-term mitigation measures to restore the beluga whale population to 70% of its historical size (7070 individuals), but with current growth rate of 1% it will take until 2100 to reach that goal (DFO, 2012).


Fig: The Saguenay-St. Lawrence Marine Park and the two proposed marine protected areas (MPAs), the proposed Manicouagan marine protected area and the proposed St. Lawrence Estuary Marine Protected Area. Inset: the location of the area in Quebec. (Source: DFO, 2012).

There is lack of study that correlates organic chemicals in beluga tissues to the source of these chemicals. Proper monitoring and management plan for industrial development activities needs to be adopted. Cumulative effects assessment of the St. Lawrence River watershed might help us to identify and minimize the negative impacts of the toxic chemicals on the St. Lawrence River ecosystem.

The question comes to mind, who to blame? Are the industries only responsible for the pollution?

Leave your word below.


Beluga whale. In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved October 08, 2013, from http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Beluga_whale&oldid=576379085

CBC News. 2013, August 20. Beluga deaths in St. Lawrence worry whale researchers. Retrieved October 8, 2013, from http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/montreal/beluga-deaths-in-st-lawrence-worry-whale-researchers-1.1346616.

DFO. 2005. Recovery potential assessment of Cumberland sound, Ungava Bay, Eastern Hudson Bay and St. Lawrence beluga populations (Delphinapterus leucas). DFO Can Sci Advis Sec Sci Advis Rep 2005/036, 14 pp. Available at http://www.dfo-mpo.gc.ca/csas/Csas/status/2005/SAR-AS2005_036_e.pdf; 2006.

DFO. 2012. Recovery Strategy for the beluga whale (Delphinapterus leucas) St. Lawrence Estuary population in Canada. Species at Risk Act Recovery Strategy Series. Fisheries and Oceans Canada, Ottawa. 88 pp + X pp. Available at http://www.sararegistry.gc.ca/virtual_sara/files/plans/rs_st_laur_beluga_0312_e.pdf

Lebeuf, M., M. Noël, S. Trottier and L. Measures. 2007. “Temporal trends (1987-2002) of persistent, bioaccumulative and toxic (PBT) chemicals in beluga whales (Delphinapterus leucas) from the St. Lawrence Estuary, Canada.” Science of the Total Environment 383: 216-231.

Martineau, Daniel, Karin Lemberger, André Dallaire, Philippe Labelle, Thomas P. Lipscomb, Pascal Michel and Igor Mikaelian. 2002. “Cancer in Wildlife, a Case Study: Beluga from the St. Lawrence Estuary, Québec, Canada.” Environmental Health Perspectives 110: 285-292.

Metcalfe, C.,  T. Metcalfe, S. Ray, G. Paterson and B. Koeniga. 1999. “Polychlorinated biphenyls and organochlorine compounds in brain, liver and muscle of beluga whales (Delphinapterus leucas) from the Arctic and St. Lawrence estuary.” Marine Environmental Research 47: 1-15.

Assessments in the oil sands: Are they too late to save the caribou?

Alberta Energy outlines the process for setting up an oil sands mining or extraction site on its website in a section titled “Oil Sands 101”. This title is quite apt, since the process is indeed of a difficulty level comparable to that of a beginner level class. Four stages are outlined: stage 1 consists of obtaining rights to the land and exploration, stage 2 encompasses everything from project approval, where EIA occurs, to the operational phase of the project, stage 3 includes royalties and refining and stage 4 is the shut-down process (1). Most land with the potential to contain oil sands is public property, in other words, it belongs to the Provincial Crown (1). Mineral Rights for parcels of land can be purchased from the crown via Alberta Energy (1). The process of purchasing rights is outlined in the Alberta Oil Sands Tenure Guidelines (2). However, while this process does not require any assessments of potential social or environmental impacts, obtaining rights to the land does allow exploration work to take place and allows construction of extraction facilities to begin (1,2). This kind of exploration work entails land clearing for roads and pipelines and also some drilling at the site in question (1, 3). However, while work that begins at this stage in the project is not deemed harmful enough to require an assessment, it spells out many problems for woodland caribou (3, 4, 5). The issues are well summarized in the last few minutes (starting around minute 39) of the Nature of Things episode “Billion Dollar Caribou”.

Billion Dollar Caribou

Woodland caribou are very sensitive to any disturbance of their forest habitat: it has been demonstrated that caribou avoid developments, keeping a buffer of at least 500m away from any roads (6). While one road may not seem problematic, the encroachment of a lot of development into caribou land decreases the amount of land usable by the caribou and increases their densities in the remaining suitable habitats, making them more vulnerable to predators (6). This is exactly what is happening in the Little Smoky area, where the caribou herd is quickly dwindling due to a huge increase in development (3,4,5,7). The following map (8) shows all of the new roads that have been constructed in the Little Smoky area pre-2005 (purple) and post-2005 (black). The pale grey area corresponds to prime caribou habitat, and as it can be seen in this map, since 2005, most of the development taking place has been encroaching on this prime caribou habitat (8). The Alberta Caribou Recovery Plan, written in the Summer of 2005,  had declared the Little Smoky herd to be at immediate risk for extirpation and called for a moratorium on all timber and mineral allocations in this area until a range plan, which would designate which areas needed to be conserved, could be developed (7). However, new oil sands developments were permitted in the little Smoky area post 2005, and it is only now that the herd has dwindled down to some 80-100 individuals that Alberta Energy has finally agreed to halt the sale of new mineral rights leases in Little Smoky until the range plan is developed (3, 4, 7).

What does this tell us from an EIA point of view? From an efficiency point of view it does not make sense to perform an EIA on all of the initial exploratory development. However, it is obvious that the combination of all of these small developments is having a huge impact on caribou. Cumulative effects have not been addressed, and the caribou are suffering as a result. What seems to be missing in this instance is a Strategic Environmental Assessment for the oil sands areas in order to determine which areas can be exploited without compromising the caribou or other VECs. This SEA would, of course, have to address cumulative effects. What is interesting is that a framework for conducting such a study already exists: Alberta’s Land-use framework. This framework proposes the creation of land use plans in seven new land-use regions, seen in the image, delimited based on Alberta’s different watersheds (9). These plans will propose means to use the land efficiently while meeting both development and conservation goals (9). The framework states the intention to use cumulative effects management and monitoring to meet these goals (9). Unfortunately, as with the caribou range plans, these land-use plans appear to be very slow in the making. Only the Lower Athabasca region plan has been completed and planning in all the regions except for South Saskatchewan has not even begun (10). One would hope that these planning tools will be completed before it is too late for the caribou and all other VECs at risk.


1- Alberta Energy. (2013) Oil sands 101. Retrieved from: http://www.energy.alberta.ca/OilSands/1715.asp

2- Alberta Energy. (August 14th 2009) Alberta Oil Sands Tenure Guidelines: Principles and Procedures. Retrieved from: http://www.energy.alberta.ca/OilSands/pdfs/GDE_OST_2009.pdf

3-Weber,B. (February 6th, 2013) “Environmentalists press Alberta to stop oil leases on caribou range” Globe and Mail. Retrieved from: http://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/national/environmentalists-press-alberta-to-stop-oil-leases-on-caribou-range/article8307771/

4- Alberta Wilderness Association (May 3rd, 2013) “Alberta Defers New Energy Leasing in Two Caribou Herd Ranges”. Retrieved from: http://albertawilderness.ca/news/2013/2013-05-03-awa-news-release-alberta-defers-new-energy-leasing-in-two-caribou-herd-ranges

5- Weber, B. (December 23rd, 2012) “Trapper laments destruction of Alberta forest, caribou habitat” The Canadian Press. Retrieved from: http://www.timescolonist.com/news/weather/trapper-laments-destruction-of-alberta-forest-caribou-habitat-1.33686

6- Dyer, S. et al. (2002) “Quantifying barrier effects of roads and seismic lines on movements of female woodland caribou in northeastern Alberta” Journal of Canadian Zoology. Vol. 80, pp. 839-845.

7- Alberta Woodland Caribou Recovery Team. (2005) “Alberta Woodland Caribou Recovery Plan 2004/5-2013/14”. Alberta Sustainable Resource Development, Fish and Wildlife Division, Alberta Species at Risk Recovery Plan No. 4. Edmonton AB. 48p. Retrieved from: http://srd.alberta.ca/FishWildlife/SpeciesAtRisk/SpeciesAtRiskPublicationsWebResources/Mammals/documents/SAR-WoodlandCaribouRecoveryPlan-Jul2005.pdf

8- The Nature of Things, CBC. (2013) Little Smoky Caribou Range. Retrieved from: http://www.cbc.ca/natureofthings/features/little-smoky1

9- Alberta Land-Use. (December 2008) “Land-use Framework” Edmonton AB. 54p. Retrieved from: https://www.landuse.alberta.ca/LandUse%20Documents/Land-use%20Framework%20-%202008-12.pdf

10- Alberta Environment and Sustainable Resource Development (2013) Regional Plans. Retrieved from: https://landuse.alberta.ca/REGIONALPLANS/Pages/default.aspx.

Wastewater treatment in Canada

Wastewater treatment is unfortunately a big issue in Canada, and has been shown to have possible significant environmental impacts. Wastewater comes from many sources: “sanitary sewage [which] is generated from homes, businesses, institutions and industries” but also stormwater which comes from rain and snow. (Government of Canada, 2013) The issue seems to be related to a lack of enforcement of Environmental Assessment (EA) laws over the country. In fact, although laws are present for the regulation of wastewater, few provinces seem to apply it and monitor the water quality.

The Ecojustice environmental group states that: “each year, 3,700 sewage treatment plants release about 6 trillion litres of sewage, 150 billion litres of that untreated, into our waterways…”(Ecojustice, 2012) Thus sewage is being dumped in waterways without any kind of prior treatment in some cases, revealing the amplitude of the problem. Moreover the following video illustrates well this issue with a real life example showing the untreated sewage dumped into a river in BC. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xTMtlWKqblo

Furthermore, as stated in the Regulatory Impact Analysis Statement of the Wastewater Systems Effluent Regulations, “Treatment levels range from very good in many areas to poor or no treatment, mostly on the coasts.” (Government of Canada, 2012) Thus authorities are aware of the problem, yet as we can see, few changes are being applied in this domain.

According to the Regulatory Impact Analysis Statement, some of the possible consequences of that lack of enforcement of the wastewater laws are: “fish kills; algal blooms; the destruction of habitat from sedimentation, debris, and increased water flow; and short- and long-term toxicity from chemical contaminants; along with the accumulation and magnification of chemicals at higher levels of the food chain.”; (Government of Canada, 2012) as well human health problems might arise from the consumption of fish, and possibly contaminated drinking water from sewage link to groundwater. (Government of Canada, 2012)


Photo source: The Great Lakes Sewage Report Card, a Sierra Legal Report, 2006.

In addition, according to Mae Burrows of the Labour Environmental Alliance, studies have found a correlation between the toxin found in sewage and salmon’s reproductive issues. (Ecojustice, 2012) Also according to other studies, Beluga whales present in the St. Lawrence have such high level of organochlorine in their organism, that the latter should be considered a hazardous waste. Actually, the Belugas are victim of many diseases: “tumours, ulcers, skeletal disordes widespread viral and other problems, including an alarming inability to reproduce…” (Sierra Club, 1999) As well human health issues may occur due to industrial wastewater release into the rivers and lakes from many sources: the mine tailings, the oil sand’s industry, the salmon farms…In fact, one could consider the latter to be some of the most contaminated sewages, containing large amounts of chemicals, thus their release without enough prior treatment would cause major environmental impacts.

Furthermore, one of the issues behind those impacts seem to be the lack of harmonization between the different provincial standards for water quality in Canada; thus parties are urging for the implementation of national standards, which is also the goal of the new wastewater regulation. (Government of Canada, 2012) In fact, in my opinion one can’t vary the thresholds between different provinces especially for highly dangerous chemical compounds, which nonetheless has been the case.   Moreover, concerning the monitoring program, municipalities have mentioned that “The need to perform all tests in an accredited laboratory has also been identified as an expensive measure that would provide little environmental benefit”. (Government of Canada, 2012) Therefore acquiring the resources and the funds necessary for the monitoring program seems to be another important issue pointed out by municipalities. (Government of Canada, 2012) Finally, at a conference in Ottawa in July 2012, the minister Peter Kent said that municipalities will have between 10 to 30 years to apply the new regulations requiring secondary treatment to wastewater. Therefore one could question this change and wonder whether it will ever be in place. (CBC, 2012)


CBC. “New wastewater regulations announced by Ottawa”. CBC news. (2012)

Elaine Macdonald. “New sewage treatment rules fall short”. Ecojustice (2012)

Government of Canada. Environment Canada.“Wastewater management”. (2013)

Government of Canada. “Wastewater Systems Effluent Regulations”. Canada Gazette. Vol. 146, No. 15 (2012)

Sierra Club. The National Sewage Report Card (number two), Rating the treatment methods and Discharges of 21 Canadian cities, A Sierra Legal Defense Fund Report. (1999)

Sterile Insect Technique and EIA

Insect control is vital in crop and animal production. Despite the development and availability of various control techniques, insect pests remain a major reason of food shortage, and a main contributor to human and livestock diseases worldwide.

Insecticides are widely used to control insect pests. However, such a control method is environmentally unsafe and costly. Additionally, many insect species have developed resistance to diverse insecticides (Hains, 1977). Thus, more than ever, there is a need to find alternative control methods to avoid these problems. A number of these methods are being developed and implemented throughout the world.  Sterile Insect technique is considered one of the alternative methods.

Sterile insect technique involves mass rearing of target insect species, releasing the reared insects after sterilization (usually using irradiation) into the field to compete with natural population of the target insect species. Sterile released insects will mate with fertile wild ones. Subsequently, infertile eggs will be produced and reduction of the natural population will be achieved (Knipling 1976).


Unlike other conventional and biological methods, SIT does not have adverse impacts on non-target organisms. Moreover, it can be integrated efficiently with other control methods and lead to a major reduction in an insect population.

Several investigations have showed that the SIT would be effective if only males were released in the target area (Makee and Saour 2004). Recently, the development of genetic sexing strain for some species allowed the elimination of the females during early production process. Thus, only sterile males are release in the field measures. This advanced technology caused reduction of SIT cost by half.

SIT has been successfully used against the screwworm fly in Mexico, the Mediterranean fruit fly in Mexico and Guatemala, the melon fly in Japan, codling moth in Canada and tsetse fly in Africa (Hendrics 2004).

When SIT is implemented great environmental benefits and major economic impacts can be achieved. SIT program for eradication of medfly from Mexico costs US$ 8 million/year; however, it has protected export markets for about US$ 1 billion/year (Hendrics 2004).


Environmental impacts Assessment 

Like any industry, SIT production facilities are subjected to the local environmental regulations.

In order to keep minor impact on biodiversity the World Bank proposed steps that should be followed to ensure efficient EIA. There are several issues that relevant to a sterile insect production facility such as (IAEA 2008):

• Control over local resources.

• Guidelines for facilities Construction.

• Impact of setting and integration into local communities including proposal for

potential affected groups

• Impact of new roads and access, transport of goods.

• Construction impacts

• Waste collection and disposal

• Wastewater collection treatment, reuse and disposal, collection, recycling systems and waste monitoring.

International Conventions and Agreements and Sterile Insects

Currently, the only binding agreement with reference to sterile insects is International Plant Protection Convention (IPPC, 1997), The Convention on Biological Diversity CBD that “prevent the movement of alien invasive species (which include quarantine pest species) into a neighbour’s territories as well as one’s own” can be deduced as supporting SIT with their directions.  Because of the lack of clear international regulation or obligation, countries may permit mass production of insect species or the transit of these species through their regions under restricted conditions,

 Guidelines for Shipment and Release of Beneficial Organisms

1n 2005 the international standard of  “Guidelines for the export, shipment, import and release of biological control agents and other beneficial organisms (IPPC 2005), particularly indicates to the need to facilitate safe export, shipment, import and release of sterile insects within a pest control programme (Quinlan and Larcher 2007).

Release of Any Exotic Species and Regional and National Laws

There are no regional or national laws that specifically address the release of sterile insects of an exotic species. There are several directives that may impact the release of sterile insects in European Union, but they are not directly stated.

The laws and regulations regarding release of insects are, not the responsibility of the production facility but rather the importing party (IAEA 2008).


Haines, C. P. (1977). The potato tuber moth Phthorimaea operculella (Zeller): a bibliography of recent litruture and review of its biology and control on potatoes in the field and in store. Rep. Trop. Prod. Inst. G 112:III, 15.

Hendrichs, J. 2004. Use of the Sterile Insect Technique Against Key Insect Pests.  Sustainable  Development International.75-79.

IAEA 2008.  ‘Model business plan for sterile insect production’. Joint FAO/IAEA program. Vienna January 2008.1-396-

Knipling, E. F. 1979. The basic principles of insect population suppression management.

USDA Agriculture Handbook No. 512. Washington, DC, USDA.

Makee,H. and G. Saour. 2004. Irradiated Females and Efficiency of Sterile Insect Technique Against Phthorimaea  operculella Zeller (Lepidoptera: Gelechiidae). J. Vegetable Crop Production. 10 (1): 11-22.

Quinlan, M.M. and Larcher-Carvalho, A. 2007. Tools for the trade: the international business of the SIT. In: M.J.B. Vreysen, A.S. Robinson and J. Hendrichs, eds., Area-wide control of insect pests. From research to field implementation, pp. 435-448. Dordrecht, The Netherlands, Springer.

Giving climate change impact its reasonable place in Environmental Impact Assessments (EIA)

Environment Impact Assessments (EIA) are extensively used from medium to large projects as a decision making tool to minimize the impacts of development on the environment.   In most of the countries of the world, EIAs are used as a regulatory requirement of project planning, development, operation, and decommissioning (Noble, 2010; Wathern, 2002). However, climate change component has not been included in many EIA studies.  In reality, risk of impact from climate change is becoming one of the major threats to infrastructure development projects (Klein et al., 2007). For example, in the past few years, we have observed increases in natural disasters such as flash floods which destroy a number of infrastructures types, including roads, bridges and hydroelectric power dams. Worse still, these events generally cause human causalities. The frequencies of events such as these have been increasing every year. In fact, climate change due to global warming is predicted to produce annual temperature rise and greater frequency and intensity of flash flooding, drought, tornados etc. (Hurrell, 2003; IPCC, 2000). Additionally, increasing temperatures is one of the main causes attributed to Glacier Lake Outbursts (Kumar and  Murugesh Prabhu, 2012). In turn, we have seen many infrastructure wash outs by unexpected floods originating from Glacier Lake Outbursts. Please see these following videos if you would like to know more about impact of climate change.




Despite these facts, in addition to the wealth of data on the potential risks to our economies, climate change has yet to be been fully incorporated in EIA studies. Infrastructure projects throughout the world, such as highway development, mine tailings facilities, and energy infrastructure generally have relatively long life expectancies, ranging from a few years to over a hundred years (NSE, 2011). It is therefore important to consider how the impact of climate will trim down the project’s life span, and how this will affect the environmental, physical (direct impacts) and financial (e.g. insurance premiums, maintenance, etc.) viability of the project (NSE, 2011).  If a climate change component is incorporated into EIA studies, it will help identify impacts of climate change on that particular project and aid best practices that in adapting to a variable climactic future (NSE, 2011). Furthermore, incorporating the impacts of climate change into EIA studies may avoid future costs to the project, as well as help prevent the loss of biodiversity and human deaths caused by natural disasters related to climate change. In summary, the component that deals with the impact of climate change needs to be incorporated into EIA studies in order to identify how changing patterns of the climate can affect development projects and local communities as a whole.


Kumar, B., Murugesh Prabhu,T. S. 2012. Impacts of Climate Change: Glacial Lake Outburst Floods (GLOFs). In Arrawatia, M. L., Tambe,S. (Eds), Climate Change in Sikkim Patterns, Impacts and Initiatives. Information and Public Relations Department, Government of Sikkim, Gangtok.

Hurrell, J. W., Y. Kushnir, G. Ottersen, and M. Visbeck (Eds.) 2003. The North Atlantic Oscillation: Climatic Significance and Environmental Impact, Geophys. Monogr. Ser., vol. 134, 279 pp., AGU, Washington, D.C.

IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change). 2000. Emission Scenarios, a Special Report of IPCC Working Group III, UNEP and WMO, 27 pp.

Klein, R.T., Eriksen, S.H., Næss, L., Hammill, A., Tanner, T., Robledo, C., O’Brien, K., 2007. Portfolio screening to support the mainstreaming of adaptation to climate change into development assistance. Clim. Change 84, 23–44.

Noble, B.F. 2010. Introduction to Environmental Impact Assessment: A Guide to Principles and Practice,  (2nd edn.), Oxford University Press, Toronto, Ontario, Canada, 274 pp

NSE (Nova Scotia Environment). 2011. Guide to Considering Climate Change in Environmental Assessment in Nova Scotia. Nova Scotia Environment, Canada, 20 pp.

Wathern, P. 2002. Environmental impact assessment: theory and practice. Routledge, USA, 198 pp