Friday, May 29, 2015

The Case for Public Participation

 “Public Participation in the Decommissioning of Industrial Sites”

A presentation by Vern Millard
Then chair of Alberta's Energy Resources Conservation Board.
 October 1, 1985

Why should the public participate in the decommissioning of industrial sites? After all, government departments and agencies have been assigned the responsibly of ensuring that human health and the Environment are protected, so why can't we leave the issue to them and let them get on with their job? The owner of the plant will probably be engaging consulting specialists or using its own experts to make appropriate tests and recommend suitable programs.

Government departments and agencies have staff experts who can review the technical information to see whether it is suitable and the programs reasonable. So why should we complicate the process by getting other people involved who will likely need to be educated about the process and who might ask questions that will be difficult to answer or satisfy the people with the answer?

But let's turn the question around the other way and consider it from the viewpoint of the person living near the plant which is going to be decommissioned. Why shouldn't he or she be able to find out what is planned for the plant - how it will be decommissioned, the tests that will be taken to determine the current state of the site, the standards that the decommissioning process must meet and, of most importance, how the experts know that it will be safe for people in the area in the future? Indeed, shouldn't the same process of public participation apply to the decommissioning phase as apples when the project is being considered for approval as it applies in Alberta? Let's briefly review that latter process.

Public Participation in the Approval and Operating Phases of Energy Projects
Any proposed energy faculty, whether it is a shallow gas well or a mega-project mining and upgrading oil sands, requires approval of the Energy Resources Conservation Board (ERCB) before it can proceed. Significant projects also require the approval of the Minister of the Environment with respect to environmental matters and where the project could have substantial environmental implications. The Minister would likely request an environmental impact assessment. The ERCB strongly encourages the applicant to review the proposed project with people in the area. Sometimes, ERCB representatives participate in that process.

The ERCB is required under the Energy Resources Conservation Act to provide notice of the proposed project to any person who might be directly and adversely affected by it. Should a person wish to ask questions of the applicant or present evidence respecting it, then the Board appoints an examining panel and convenes a public hearing to permit all interested persons to present their views. Following the hearing, the panel makes its decision and issues a report which provides a summary of the evidence and the reasons for its decision.

If the decision is to approve the project, then the ERCB seeks any necessary supplementary authorizations – approval from the Minister of the Environment and in some cases an Order-in-Council. Following receipt of those authorizations the ERCB issues the approval to the applicant which frequently contains special conditions that must be compiled with. The applicant also requires licenses under the Clean Air and Clean Water Acts, which are under the jurisdiction of Alberta Environment.

I submit that the system is straight-forward, open and decisive. Moreover, it provides full opportunity for the public to participate. An important element in that participation is the provision for intervener’s costs, which permits local people to recover reasonable costs required to prepare for and participate in the hearing should that be found necessary. Those costs include the fees of a sector and consultant if necessary to adequately present the intervener’s position.

If the project proceeds, then its operation is governed by the ERCB approval, licenses issued by Alberta Environment and other regulatory requirements. Extensive monitoring of operations is carried out and reports submitted to either the ERCB or Environment.

Sometimes local people become concerned about plant operations and complaints are registered with either the ERCB or Alberta Environment. Those complaints are investigated –usually by ERCB field inspectors and, if necessary, the operator is required to modify operating procedures or equipment.

Where  problems with local people appear to persist, the ERCB encourages the operator to form a local committee which usually includes representative from the community, the operator, the ERCB, and Environment.

 Changes in Public Participation
During the last three years respecting there have been substantial changes in public participation respecting energy projects in Alberta. The concerns that local people and environmental groups have respecting these matters have been recognized and, to a significant degree, addressed. The establishment of more effective communication between the groups has, I believe, led to the resolution of many of the problems. It has also identified issues that require resolution.

Many of the changes relate to the consideration of and operation of sour gas plants, which have probably been the most contentious of all energy operations in the province. The improved communications have assisted materially, not only in people better appreciating the high standards that prevail in Alberta but in denying further investigations that need to be made. Currently an extensive and sophisticated scientific research study is underway respecting the impacts of acid forming emissions from sour gas plants and other emission sources. It is called the Acid Deposition Research Program which will be carried out under joint funding by the Alberta government and industry. The program will require several years to complete and will cost some 8 million dollars. The public is very ably represented on the steering committing by Dr. Martha Kostuch.

A closely related program is a sophisticated and comprehensive epidemiological study to examine whether the health of people in the Pincher Creek/Twin Butte area differs from that of people in two control areas. A team of medical experts has examined more than three thousand people and the study results are expected in a few months. The public is very ably represented on that study by Mrs. Sophie Taylor.

In a similar manner the ERCB and Environment are reviewing the suitably of the current sulphur recovery guidelines for sour gas processing plants and has established a committee that consists of representatives from industry and the public to make the review.

Decommissioning Sour Gas and Other industrial Plants
Unfortunately the degree of organization and public participation involved in approving and operation of sour gas plants does not currently apply in their decommissioning. I suppose it would be accurate say that to date our attention has been directed to the initiation and operation stages rather than to plant shut-downs. However, many plants have been on production for more than twenty years and over the next few decades we will see an increasing number of decommissionings.

The first major sour gas plant to be decommissioned was the Pincher Creek Gulf plant and developments in that case demonstrated many inadequacies and the need to develop a satisfactory policy. It also identified the need to clarify respective jurisdictions respecting plant abandonments. While work has been proceeding by both the ERCB and Environment, much remains to be done. I am sure that the conclusions from this workshop will be particularly important in that process.

One of the issues in developing an appropriate policy is the role and extent of participation by the public. In my view the policy must provide for that participation otherwise the problems that were encountered with the Pincher Creek plant can be repeated. The program for decommissioning must be an open one which permits put by the public and ensures that information obtained from sampling and monitoring available to all.

I assume that the decommissioning process involves several stages:
1.       Obtaining an inventory of the current site including such matters as the facts, the extent of contamination and any special problems.
2.       Determining the future use that will be made of the site – will it continue to be used for industrial purposes or will it be returned to agricultural use or possibly used for residential development or recreation?
3.       Based on the inventory and future use, develop an appropriate rehabilitation program.
4.       Establish and conduct a monitoring program to ensure that the rehabilitation achieved.
Finally, a reclamation certificate is issued and the decommissioning is complete.

How should the public participate in that program? In order to address that question I have taken the liberty of setting out a series of steps that might be part of a decommissioning program.
1.       When the operation is approaching the end of its life, the operator should prepare a broad decommissioning plan which would address each of the issues.
2.       The decommissioning plan should be discussed with the local people to inform them of future developments and to permit their put, particularly with respect to any special concerns that should be taken not account in completing the inventory.
3.       The plan should be filed with Environment and the ERCB for consideration.
4.       Following approval of the decommissioning plan, the operator should proceed to complete the inventory of current conditions. Upon completion, the report should be fled with Environment and the ERCB and made available to the public. Because of the complex and highly technical nature of the assessment, the operator should convene a meeting to present and explain the significance of the findings. Representatives of Environment and the ERCB should attend the meeting.
5.       Future land use should be determined by the appropriate agency and with full opportunity for the public to participate.
6.       Following the decision on land use, the operator should prepare a rehabilitation plan which would identify the action to be taken to convert the existing situation to conditions satisfactory for the planned land use. It would also specify the proposed monitoring program to ensure that rehabilitation had been achieved. The rehabilitation/ monitoring plan would be reviewed with the public in the same manner as the broad decommissioning plan and input sought. A final plan would then be prepared and filed with Environment and the ERCB.
7.       Should there be disputes between the public and the operator respecting the rehabilitation program, Environment/ERCB could convene a public meeting/hearing to permit each party to present his or her views.
8.       Following a decision on the rehabilitation/monitoring plan, the operator would proceed to implementation. Environment/ERCB would establish the extent of their inspection system and would advise the public of it.
9.       If rehabilitation continued over a relatively long period, the operator should keep the public and Environment/ERCB advised of progress by periodic summary reports.
10.   Upon completion of the rehabilitation phase, the operator would submit a report to Environment/ERCB summarizing the program, its achievements and identifying any unsettled issues. The report would be made available to the public and would be discussed at a public meeting with representatives of Environment/ERCB in attendance.
11.   Environment/ERCB would consider whether the rehabilitation program was satisfactorily complete. They would check with local people to obtain their views. If there were outstanding concerns a meeting would be convened to provide the parties with an opportunity to present their views.
12.   Following approval of rehabilitation, the operator would proceed with the monitoring program. Results would be summarized and provided to the public and Environment/ERCB. If the public had any concerns they would advise Environment/ERCB who would investigate and decide whether further work needed to be done.
13.   The operator would request a reclamation certificate and advise the public of the request.

The foregoing is not intended as a decommissioning plan or policy but merely as an illustration of how and to what extent the public should be involved in the process. There may be many times when local people do not wish to be so involved, but I believe the process should provide for it. The basic objective is to ensure that any concerns of the public are properly addressed and that there is full opportunity for their views to be presented and considered. Additionally, it is important to provide the public with an opportunity to appreciate and understand the demanding standards that are required of industrial operations. 

All too often the latter is not achieved and the public comes to the conclusion that standards or performance are much less than they actually are.

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