How bureaucratic arrogance doomed a Ministerial ruling

The Sipekne’katik Band has won its appeal against the Nova Scotia Environment Minister Margaret Miller’s approval of the Alton Gas Storage Project, not on any substantive objection to the project, but due to arrogant behaviour that increasingly characterizes the provincial government’s interactions with the public and the media.

Frankly, the band’s objections to the project are flimsy, but the government deserved what it got.

The initial concerns of the band and local residents were understandable. The Shubenacadie River has been a central feature of the band’s history and culture for millennia. It’s an important resource for all area residents. But the scientific evidence is clear the gas storage project poses no discernible threat to the river or its environment.

Alton’s plan is to buy natural gas at times of year when it’s cheap, and store it in underground salt caverns for use when prices rise.  The caverns would be hollowed out by a process known as solution mining, with the dissolved salt discharged into the Shubenacadie.

Sounds scary until you learn the maximum daily discharge of salt would be less than 1/1200th of the salt that enters the river on the daily influx of the tides. Moreover, discharge would only be permitted when it would not take the river’s salt content outside its natural range.

The protests persisted mainly because they got tangled up in band politics, with rival factions vying to outdo one another in the fervour of their objections. News coverage in local online media mainly took the form: Natives good; government and industry bad. There was little or no reporting of the scientific evidence or the band politics.

So if the minister’s decision to approve the project was correct, why was it overturned?

As she was considering her decision, the minister received a staff report recommending the project’s approval. That report was informed, in part, by a memo from the Office of Aboriginal Affairs. Band lawyers repeatedly asked to for a chance to review and comment on both documents. The department refused.

Madam Justice Suzanne M. Hood ruled Friday that by refusing to let the band respond to information she considered in reaching her decision, Minster Miller denied it “procedural fairness.”

In addition to being arrogant, this was just dumb. What possible reason was there—apart from knee-jerk secretiveness—to deny an appellant access to all the information the minister considered when making her quasi-judicial decision?

I’ve encountered more and more of this knee-jerk secretiveness from provincial officials lately. Recently I’ve asked communications officers in two departments about an investigation carried out almost a decade ago into an intriguing problem with potential public safety implications. I don’t suspect anything nefarious. I’m just genuinely curious, and I think readers would be too. The responses to my inquiries have been curt to the point of rudeness, and non-responsive to a degree I have not encountered since the Gerald Regan administration.

More on this in the weeks to come.

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