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Alberni city council calls for independent coal panel

Port Alberni has added its name to the list of municipalities calling for the Raven Coal Mine project to be examined by an independent review panel.

City councillors endorsed the report from city manager Ken Watson at their Monday meeting and referred the matter to a joint federal-provincial environmental review panel.

According to Watson, the current federal/provincial review process rigorously examines the environmental, social and economic impacts of the project.

As well, it provides ample opportunity to receive and review public comment, and effectively resolves issues between government and the company.

But staff drives the process, other agencies’ inputs are received through working groups, and the minister makes the final decision.

An independent panel would employ the same quality of experts, be just as rigorous, and still require ministerial sign off, the report noted.

But the panel would be more transparent, and would offer more opportunity for stakeholders to question findings by the company.

Watson wouldn’t speculate on what impact moving to a panel process would have on the project.

“That would depend on the viewpoints of the individuals selected by the minister to sit on the panel,” he said.

Council requested the report after an Alberni Environmental Coalition (AEC) presentation last April, in which they asked council to refer it to a panel.

The federal environment minister’s approval is required for the panel’s creation.

But it could only be created if the project had “significant” adverse environmental impact and if enough public concern warranted it.

The writing may already be on the wall though about the success of creating a panel.

According to Watson’s report, neither federal nor provincial officials are considering a move towards a panel.

The Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency has also placated one the criterion required to create a panel.

The agency referred to comments received during the initial comments period of the process in a document it posted online.

The agency has “...not identified significant adverse environmental affects that may result from the project after applying standard mitigation measures.”

A change of pace is needed Mayor Ken McRae said in a telephone interview.

“My whole life I’ve been for open independent process,” he said.

Decision makers in the existing process take their cues from staff and the public’s input isn’t necessarily given the same weight.

“I have a problem with that,” McRae said.

An independent panel process “is as open as you can get,” he added.

The move is the right approach, AEC official Jane Armstrong said.

In the existing process, the company hires experts to do studies for them.

The panel process sees government hire experts, who are open to public scrutiny.

“Port Alberni deserves the most rigorous process under the current legislation,” Armstrong said.