Minister of Environment Terry Lake defended the work of the B.C. Environmental Assessment Office, calling the public consultation process of the proposed jet fuel storage facility on the Fraser River's south arm a "good example" of the early stages of the assessment process.
"I would say it's an example of how it has succeeded. The public and city council and Richmond's MLA's shared expressed concerns and the EAO heard all those things and the proponent is now going back to re-examine the other options," Lake said.
But not everyone, including Richmond's mayor, agrees the process has been adequate.
Lake also said his ministry is taking a "hard look" at whether or not the EAO requires more funding or human resources in the wake of a report earlier this month from B.C.'s Auditor General, which criticized the office's inability to properly measure, monitor, and enforce environmental commitments on major industrial projects.
Lake noted the report did not look into the pre-approval assessment process, which includes public consultation.
As he noted, the project's proponent, Vancouver Airport Fuel Facilities Corporation, has indicated it is looking at moving the location of a planned fuel pipeline to Highway 99 from No.5 Road. A new proposal is expected by the end of August.
Richmond Mayor Malcolm Brodie said while city council and staff have had several meetings with the project proponent, VAFFC, the quality of communication leaves something to be desired.
"The challenge is not so much voicing an opinion, the problem I see is the position we've taken has been ignored," he said of his city's opposition to the storage facility.
Brodie said he was puzzled at how the VAFFC came up with the option to ship fuel up the Fraser River via barges and Panamax tankers when other options were readily apparent, such as upgrading a current pipeline that comes from Burnaby to supply the airport.
Carol Day, chair of VAPOR, a grassroots organization of Richmond and Delta residents opposed to the plan, said the public consultation process undertaken by VAFFC was a "farce."
"It was public information, not consultation," she said.
Day's criticisms came as no surprise to environmental lawyer Mark Haddock of the Environmental Law Centre at the University of Victoria.
"The EAO follows a review and comment type of model that leaves a lot of people frustrated because they don't feel properly engaged or consulted," Haddock said.
"The public can feel excluded in this process," he said.
Ironically, VAFFC volunteered to take the proposal to the EAO for assessment, acknowledging the public's interest in mitigating the risks of a fuel spill. It was not required because the facility, which would store 500 million barrels of fuel, is under the threshold for an automatic review.
Nevertheless, a federal environmental assessment of the facility would have still taken place since the Vancouver Fraser Port Authority would be leasing federal land to VAFFC.
However, one of VAPOR's key complaints of the public consultation process has been that the port authority had "harmonized" its assessment process with the EAO.
Juergen Baumann, the port authority's manager of environmental programs, confirmed his organization is relying on public comments gathered by the EAO.
It does so because in 2004 the province and federal governments entered into the Canada B.C. Agreement for Environmental Assessment Cooperation.
Baumann said the current assessment is known as a screening assessment - the lowest level of assessment required.
Such assessments account for about 98 per cent of federal assessments. The highest level of assessment is an independent panel review. Such panels are rare and normally reserved for mega projects, however, high levels of public concern can warrant them according to the Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency.
And while VAPOR would like to see a federal panel review for the project (which would bring more public scrutiny to the table) Baumann said none of the federal authorities involved such as the Department of Fisheries and Oceans, Transport Canada, Canada Port Authority and Health Canada in the working group has called for the assessment to be taken to another level.
"None of those have suggested a panel is required, so, at this point, were going with a screening review," Baumann said.
In a statement from her office, Richmond Member of Parliament Alice Wong refused to comment when asked for her opinion on the 25-page Auditor General's report and whether a more robust federal review was needed.
Delta-Richmond East Member of Parliament Kerry-Lynne Findlay never replied to an interview request.