Water, water everywhere and not a drop to protect

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It seems that the Alward government is bound and determined to pitch itself over the gunnels of the ship of state and drown contentedly in the political equivalent of Davy Jones’s locker.

For the second time in as many weeks, the ruling Tories (for now) are having to answer tough and humiliating questions related to their administration of shale gas development in the province.

The first controversy, indirectly but not tangentially related to water, involved its decision to proceed with an RCMP investigation of Calgary-based Windsor Energy in 2011. The Province claimed in a public statement that the exploration company had violated the Oil and Natural Gas Act by failing to obtain permission from the Town of Sussex before conducting seismic testing within its municipal borders.

The Mounties said the allegation was baseless and refused to lay charges. Emails obtained by this newspaper organization this month confirmed that a lawyer working for Communications New Brunswick at the time strongly urged the Department of a Natural Resources to back off days before government officials ultimately ignored the advice and decided to go public with its probe.

Guess who’s suing whom for libel, and to the tune of 100-million bucks? Hint: The grin on the face of Windsor’s CEO has achieved Cheshire Cat-like dimensions, of late.

It’s all priceless, given that the central worry among those who oppose tight oil and gas plays in the province is the degree to which the key extraction technology, hydraulic fracturing, might poison the water tables of largely rural communities, which still depend on wells.

To wit: If legislators don’t understand the scope of their own regulations, how can they be trusted to protect the public’s drinking water?

Now, the very same lawyer, Charles Murray, who told the government it didn’t have a legal leg to stand on three years ago, has issued a stinging indictment of the Province’s waterway protection policies. This time, though, he’s not a consulting factotum; he’s New Brunswick’s ombudsman.

Payback really is, well, a bummer.

According to Telegraph-Journal legislative reporter Chris Morris, in a piece this week, “Charles Murray states in the report of his investigation into a complaint filed last year by the Nashwaak Watershed Association that the existing regulation governing waterway classifications ‘is in some respects worse than having no regulation at all.’”

He continued: “Over 12 years have passed, and the Clean Water Act has been amended, yet (the water classification) regulation exists primarily as a mirage, misleading observers to their detriment. The history of this file leads us to conclude that the Legislative Assembly must take a more direct interest if it wishes the province of New Brunswick to have an effective Water Classification Program rather than an illusory one. . .(This is) like a smoke detector without batteries. It provides no protection.”

In its absurdly lame defence, the T-J reports, the provincial Department of the Environment (which is, by every observable standard, merely a bedroom community of the Department of Natural Resources), stipulates that it has “initiated a process to develop a provincial water strategy. This will include a public engagement component, and will include discussion concerning the existing Water Classification Regulation, and whether it is the right tool to achieve our water management objectives.”

It must be joking. What water management objectives? For more than a decade, we now know, the Province has had a law on the books that its various governments – both Tory and Grit – have repeatedly refused to parse, let alone enforce.

And not just any law. It deals with water, people. . .water! Ninety-per-cent of the stuff comprises our human body weight. If we stop drinking good, old H20, we die within seven days. No other consideration in economic development – especially of natural resources – occupies a position of primacy more than does this.

Indeed, it’s bewildering – in fact, it boggles the mind – that this government expects to create a shale-gas industry, expand mining and forestry operations across the province, track in a pipeline from the west whilst winning the hearts and minds of New Brunswickers for its intentions without a sound, responsible water protection regime.

Perhaps this government is weary of public office.

Perhaps it does, in fact, prefer to commit suicide by droning and then, finally, by drowning.

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