Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Maley Drive: Why Has Greater Sudbury Been Keeping Species at Risk Info Secret for Years?

On Monday evening, around about the time it was closing its electronic gateway for the submission of comments from the public on the Maley Drive Extension proposal, the City of Greater Sudbury decided to post online a copy of a "Business Case" in support of the project (see: "Maley Drive Extension - Phase 1 Business Case Report," the City of Greater Sudbury, February 19, 2016).  While much of the material included in the "Business Case" has been in the public realm for some time, there is new information contained in the report - and some of it is extremely problematic.  In particular, Section 10.2 of the "Business Case" indicates that the Maley Drive Extension will obliterate the habitat of threatened species - Blanding's turtle and whippoorwill.  That may be bad enough - but the fact is the City appears to have known about this since at least 2013 and has never made this information available to the public.

Section 10.2 of the "Business Case" (a part of the "Legal Requirements" section of the report) tells a story.  The original 1995 Environmental Assessment and the 2008 Environmental Assessment Addendum reports did not identify the habitat of threatened or endangered species along the route.  The City is suggesting that it was as a result of changes made to the Endangered Species Act legislation that had them take another look at habitat, and that might be - but the fact is that field workers went out and looked for habitat as in 2006, and none was identified.

Keeping Secrets

Apparently, the City undertook at least two assessments of the habitat - once in 2013, and another in 2014.  The Business Case is silent on the form of these "assessments", but apparently they are being used in the pursuit of "Overall Benefit Permits" from the Ministry of Natural Resources.  More on OBP's in a moment - but for now, suffice it to say that these assessments haven't been made available to the public, and they are not included in the Business Case or its appendices. Nor have they been posted on the City's website.  There's really no way for the public to know who authored these reports (was it a wildlife biologist? or a traffic engineer?).

It's not only the public from whom these "assessments" have been kept.  Back in October of 2015, Council adopted a Resolution proposed by Councillor Lynne Reynolds which read, "Councillor Reynolds requested a report regarding the Maley Drive Extension including a business case and economic benefits be brought to Council for discussion and information." (see: Minutes of the October 2015 Council meeting).  What Council received in response to that request was a package of information which it described as, "In response to Council's request at the October 20, 2015 Council meeting, staff have prepared the attached summary of information related to the Maley Drive Extension and Widening Project," (see: "Maley Drive Extension and Widening Project," City of Greater Sudbury, November 3, 2015).  This document included a number of documents - essentially providing a summary of where the Maley project was at in November, 2015.

That summary document made no reference to the issue pertaining to Maley Drive traversing the habitat of threatened species.  And yet that information was available to staff at least since 2013.  It's unfathomable why this information was being withheld from Council - and from the public.

Destruction of Critical Species at Risk Habitat

Besides keeping this information a secret from the public, here's the real issue: apparently, City of Greater Sudbury staff are embarking on the pursuit of Overall Benefit Permits (OBP's) from the Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry (MNRF).  OBP's are essentially a license to destroy specific habitat, under certain conditions, and only where there can be a net benefit to the species shown as a result of other undertakings. Critics of OBP's (like me. See: "May: Who is looking after woodland caribou?" the Sudbury Star, March 28, 2014) say that they undermine the province's otherwise decent Endangered Species legislation.

But even the MNRF considers OBP's as a bit of a "last resort" - see the Requirements Section of the Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry's "Species at Risk - Overall Benefit Permits" page.  Specifically, see the bullet point which reads, "reasonable alternatives have been considered, including alternatives that would not adversely affect the species, and the best alternative has been chosen". Those "reasonable alternatives" are generally the sorts of things that an Environmental Assessment would examine.  They would include (as the MNRF's page alludes to further down in the "Requirement: Consider Reasonable Alternatives" section), "changing the location of the activity".

In fact, had either of the two earlier Environmental Assessments identified the presence of critical habitat of a species at risk, they would have examined a number of options for the project, including having Maley Drive follow a different route.  In fact, the first Environmental Assessment did examine a number of different routes for Maley Drive and alternatives to the City's street network.  And while the 1995 EA determined the present route to be the most feasible, the outcome might have been different had it been known at that time that the habitat of species at risk was located in the middle of the favoured corridor.

But rather than taking a step back in 2013 once the presence of the critical habitat of species at risk was identified, the City seems to have decided to plow ahead with the OBP process.  It's not known whether the assessments performed in 2013 and 2014 looked at re-routing alternatives (although if defies logic that the City would have done this through a process other than the Environmental Assessment process).  If those alternatives haven't been closely looked at, it seems difficult to me that Staff should be suggesting to Council that it should just simply press on with the project.

Sorry, but this is a complete game-changer.  This throws the findings of previous Environmental Assessments out the window - along with the assumptions and decisions which were made since 1995 based on those findings.  This isn't a minor matter that can be blown off through a permitting process - even as one as flawed as the one that exists in Ontario today.  Without a fresh look at route alternatives, it is completely premature to write off the critical habitat of species at risk that is located approximately 400 metres west of the intersection of Barrydowne Road and Maley Drive.

Proceeding Would be Irresponsible

Earlier today, I requested copies of the "assessments" identified in the "Business Case" from the author of the Report, David Shelsted, the City's Director of Roads and Transportation Services.  If I am going to present at the public meeting on March 1st, I'd very much like to have all of the information about this project, in order to come to my own conclusions.  Right now, in absence of these assessments, it seems to me that it would be irresponsible for Council to chase Maley down a rabbit hole from which the road might not emerge, due to the presence of species at risk.  But I'd like to see those assessments - and see what they say.  Maybe the City has examined alternatives, including rerouting the road around the habitat.  Right now, though, I just don't know.

Council and the public deserve to have information available about what will assuredly be the most expensive piece of public sector infrastructure in the City's history.  Council specifically asked for a Business Case back in October of last year.  What it got in November purporting to be a Business Case appears now not to have been the final word on the matter - indeed, not even a complete summary of where the issue stood in November of 2015, due to the omission of this critical nugget of information regarding the City's involvement with the OBP process.

One can only speculate why this information is being made available now - years after the "assessments" were undertaken, but less than a week before the public has been invited to make presentations to Council at a public meeting (and on the same day that the City closed its online written submission process).

That's not good enough.  Greater Sudburians deserve better than this.

(opinions expressed in this blogpost are my own, and should not be considered consistent with the policies and/or positions of the Green Parties of Ontario and Canada)

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