Can stakeholder engagement bring sustainability at the core of EIA process?

By David Vilder.

Exactly fifteen years ago, the Voisey’s Bay Mine and Mill Environmental Assessment Panel Report set a new precedent in incorporating sustainability in environmental impact assessment (EIA) practice in Canada. For the first time, the proponent was not only asked to mitigate adverse environmental effects, but also “propose activities that would contribute positively to sustainability, locally and regionally” [1]. The general trend in EIA in the past 40 years has been to gradually move from reactive pollution control toward integrated planning and sustainability [1].

Voisey's Bay port facility by which Quest's rare earths will be shipped to Bécancour

Voisey’s Bay type of port facility by which Quest’s rare earths will be shipped to Bécancour (source: Vale)

Since that groundbreaking step, however, little progress has been made in the direction to sustainability assessment [2]. Some would actually argue that since the current government’s introduction of omnibus bill C-38 there has actually been a regression. Other aspects of EIAs, such as public participation and stakeholder engagement, on the other hand, have made greats steps in the last 20 years.

In the mining sector, in particular, a shift seems to be slowly occurring in risk communications. Mining companies have traditionally engaged their communication in a business-to-business mentality, but this is deemed to evolve [3]. The market shift that has been occurring since 2011 is making the mining sector more and more vulnerable [4]. As a result, mining corporations are slowly embracing modern concepts in risk assessment and communication, which keywords include ‘stakeholder engagement’, transparency and integration [3].

Communication in Mining Industry (source: author)

Communication in Mining Industry (source: author)

A recent example of this changing communications landscape can be seen in Quest Rare Earth’s Lake Strange Project in Quebec. Part of this project implies a processing plant in Bécancour, an already heavily industrialized town. In parallel to the announcement of the future plant, Quest also announced the creation of a follow-up committee that includes city councillors, members of the agricultural sector and aboriginal communities [5]. This is on top of the regular BAPE hearings. It closely follows the main lines of what scholars recommend make best practice in public participation, which is rather encouraging [6]. If legislation toward incorporation of sustainability into EIA practices is stalling, could it be that effective public participation becomes the effective vehicle to put a greater weight on sustainability in EIAs?

Experts in the field suggest that an improved public participation process will benefit society by allowing “better attention to multiple sustainability purposes, better selection among possible options and better design and implementation of the projects that are selected” [2]. This is exactly what new trends in communications in the mining industry aim at: communication is no longer unidirectional but becomes a an exchange between partners [4]. This approach allows a company to better understand its own sustainability agenda by constantly adapting it with stakeholders’ expectations and thereby being able to solve environmental risk challenges faster. In other words, best practice in risk communications is public participation in the EIA process but at the corporate level.

REFERENCES:

[1] Gibson, R. B. (2000). Favouring the Higher Test: Contribution to sustainability as the central criterion for reviews and decisions under the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act. Journal of Environmental Law and Practice, 10(1), 39-54.

[2] Doellea, M., & Sinclair, J. A. (2006). Time for a new approach to public participation in EA: Promoting cooperation and consensus for sustainability. Environmental Impact Assessment Review, 26(02), 185–205.

[3] IFC. (2013). CHANGING THE GAME: Communications & sustainability in the mining industry. International Finance Corporation.

[4] Deloitte. (2014). Tracking the trends. Toronto: Deloitte.

[5] La Presse canadienne . (2013, 11 06). Des terres rares transformées à Bécancour. Retrieved 01 21, 2014, from Le Devoir: http://www.ledevoir.com/economie/actualites-economiques/391845/projet-d-extraction-traitement-de-terres-rares-de-1-3-milliard-pour-becancour

[6] O’Faircheallaigh, C. (2010). Public Participation and Environmental Impact Assessment: Purposes, implications, and lessons for public policy making. Environmental Impact Assessment Review, 30, 19-27.

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