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1300 Scientists Say Canada Needs More Transparency About Environmental Risks

Young scientists and researchers are calling on Ottawa to overhaul how environmental assessments are done.

by Kate Lunau
Nov 15 2016, 6:11pm

Protestor, Angus Andersen rallies the crowd at a Muskrat Falls demonstration at the Confederation Building in St. John's on Tuesday, Oct.25, 2016. Image: THE CANADIAN PRESS/Paul Daly

In Newfoundland and Labrador on Canada's East coast, indigenous protesters have been staging hunger strikes and sit-ins against the Muskrat Falls hydroelectric project, which promises "clean, renewable energy" and yet threatens to contaminate water with toxic methylmercury. Researchers have found that local exposure to methylmercury could double as a result of the project, and recently pinpointed 11 other proposed hydroelectric sites in Canada that could produce similar or more extreme effects to what's predicted for Muskrat Falls.

Before a development project begins, environmental assessments are done to assess its possible impacts, and hopefully to minimize them down the road. But the current decision-making process in Canada needs more "transparency" and "scientific rigour," according to an open letter signed by more than 1,300 young Canadian researchers and scientists. Unless the process improves, "Canadians and the environment can be put at unforeseen risk," said lead author Aerin Jacob, an ecologist and postdoctoral fellow at the University of Victoria.

This letter comes at a critical time: Canada is reviewing how it carries out environmental assessments. Beyond Muskrat Falls, other Canadian projects are attracting huge amounts of controversy, like the Pacific NorthWest liquefied natural gas project, in B.C., which has faced protests from environmentalists and First Nations groups. South of the border, Donald Trump's victory brings talk of reviving the controversial Keystone XL pipeline, and reshaping (or possibly even dismantling) the US Environmental Protection Agency. For many scientists, cementing environmental protections and ensuring better transparency is top-of-mind.

"We've been concerned by a number of recent decisions, made under the existing processes," said Jacob, citing the Pacific NorthWest LNG project and Muskrat Falls as examples. Without rigorous and transparent environmental assessments, she said, "Canadians and the environment can be put at unforeseen risk."

Read More: How Trump Could Screw Up Justin Trudeau's Climate Plans

Scientists and researchers who've signed this letter are from a range of disciplines, including the natural and social sciences, the humanities, law, engineering, and health, she said. They're all early career and pre-tenure, meaning there's more of a risk for them in speaking out: they're grad students, postdoctoral fellows, and assistant professors.

They offer five recommendations, which include making all information from environmental assessments publicly and permanently available; requiring public disclosure of any conflicts of interest; incorporating rigorous peer-review; and considering a project's "cumulative" and downstream effects. Jacob says it's important that decisions are made transparently, and not "within a black box." She and other scientists are committing to helping the government implement these recommendations, if they opt to do so.

More and more, scientists and researchers—particularly the younger ones—seem to be embracing an activist role, and that doesn't always come naturally to all of them, Jacob acknowledged. "Researchers are sometimes reluctant to speak out. It hasn't really been part of scientific culture," she said. "The culture has been that the data speak for themselves. But they don't," she emphasized.

This open letter has attracted a "groundswell" of support from young scientists and researchers based across the country, according to Jacob.

Early career scientists "have longer to live with the problem, and professionally, we'll be the ones who are around to clean it up," she said. "There's a lot at stake. Some of these projects will last for centuries. Getting this right is critical."

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