Environmental groups in the province want legislation protecting New Brunswickers from harmful exposures to pollution-related illnesses associated with industrial development to be considered by the provincial legislature this fall. According to the environmental groups, New Brunswick has no legal way of protecting either people’s health or environmental well-being when governments plan economic development schemes such as uranium mining or shale gas.
The Environmental Rights Caucus of the New Brunswick Environmental Network (NBEN), which includes the Conservation Council of New Brunswick (CCNB), Sustainable Energy Group – Carleton chapter, and other groups, have drafted an environmental bill of rights that would protect the health of both humans and ecosystems on which humans depend. The Conservation Council has been a provincial leader in environmental protection work for more than 50 years. The NBEN is a communication network linking more than 110 non-profit environmental organizations.
The proposed legislation titled the New Brunswick Environmental Bill of Rights: An Act to Protect Children, All New Brunswickers and Nature, includes children in its title as a way to highlight the special vulnerability of children to environmental pollution.
“Children are uniquely vulnerable to pollution because children’s exposures are, proportionally, far greater than adults,” said Conservation Council Executive Director Lois Corbett. “As with adults, child exposures come from contamination of the air, water, soil, food and consumer products, but children also have the additional exposure pathways of the placenta and breast milk both before and after birth.”
When considered in proportion to body weight, children drink more water, eat more food and breathe more air than adults, and thus take in more contaminants. Compounding the problem is the fact that children’s physiology is less developed to metabolize and excrete contaminants.
“Today children are now born pre-polluted,” Corbett said. “Chronic diseases related to environmental exposures have become the major causes of morbidity and mortality among children in the world’s industrially developed countries, replacing infectious diseases.”
Such chronic diseases include asthma, birth defects, leukemia, brain cancer and neurodevelopmental disorders, including dyslexia, cognitive impairment, attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder and autism spectrum disorders.
“One of the very important things this legislation would do is add a layer of transparency to government decision making,” Corbett said. “The current process often does not specify the rationale for government decisions on development projects.”
“The New Brunswick Environmental Bill of Rights: An Act to Protect Children, All New Brunswickers and Nature would require the province to specify its reasons for, and the science data used to reach a particular decision.”
Corbett said that making such information public would also enable people to evaluate the decisions that affect their health and the health of their children.
Ontario, Quebec and Prince Edward Island already have legislation recognizing the human right to a healthy environment. Nationally, this right is being brought forward by amendments to the Canadian Environmental Protection Act (CEPA). If passed, Canada would join more than 155 nations that have recognized the right to a healthy environment in law.
A decade ago, the then newly-elected provincial Conservative government of David Alward, in which current Premier Blaine Higgs served as finance minister, refused to release any scientific information or economic rationale for its decision to try to force shale gas development on an unwilling populace. That ill-advised decision resulted in massive protests that culminated in the defeat of the Alward government in 2014.
“There is absolutely nothing in our laws requiring government here to do any comprehensive, data-driven assessment of the potential risks and harms to humans from any proposed development,” said Denise Melason, a member of the Environmental Rights Caucus. “Nor is there any requirement for New Brunswick to follow Canadian Ministry of Health recommendations or to do any ongoing monitoring to determine damage done to the health of people exposed to an industry’s activities.”
“The Environmental Rights Bill would provide a tool to government and all citizens to ensure that any projects or policies under consideration are examined from the perspective of conservation and the protection of a healthy environment in which children and all people can thrive” she said. “Until the attempt to force shale gas development on people, I had always assumed that when Environmental Impact Assessments (EIA) were completed, their focus would be on protecting human welfare and health.”
However, when Melanson read the legislation and regulations governing EIAs in New Brunswick, “it became clear that neither EIAs nor their regulations, nor any other legislation provided any protection for people.”
“Human beings had literally been removed from the consideration of environmental impacts,” Melanson said. “A blatant and concrete example of this gap in people-protection was a rule allowing gas wells 250 metres from a home and 500 metres from a school or hospital despite the fact that not a single health impact study had been done anywhere showing that this distance was safe.”
“Subsequent studies performed in the US determined that 800 meters was barely adequate to protect human health,” Melanson also notes that there was never any requirement in the provincial regulations to monitor wells near houses, schools, or hospitals or, in fact to monitor any harmful effects of any sort resulting from shale gas development.
“The Chief Medical Officer of Health in 2013, Dr. Eilish Cleary, provided the provincial government with as complete a report as possible of the potential human risks and harms from shale gas,” Melanson said. “The Cleary report, with recommendations to protect the health of New Brunswickers, was ignored by the Conservative Alward government.” Dr. Cleary was subsequently fired.
The Green Party has pledged support for the environmental bill of rights. Melanson reports that Liberal MLAs have been very receptive to the proposed legislation. The Liberal Party will be selecting a new leader early in August, and no firm decision from the Liberals is likely before then.
Conservatives currently enjoy a comfortable majority in the legislature. Their reaction to the draft environmental bill of rights will indicate whether that party is willing to make the protection of people’s health and environmental well-being a priority when planning economic development.
Dallas McQuarrie is a NB Media Co-op writer who lives on unceded Mi’kmaq territory in Kent County.
Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly identified Denise Melanson as an NBEN spokesperson. However, the New Brunswick Environmental Network is a non-advocacy group and does not take positions on any issue. The article was updated on August 8, 2022 at approximately 6 p.m. Atlantic.