Sierra Legal Defence Fund filed its response this week to the BC Ministry of Environment’s submissions into the inquiry over the government’s $172,947.50 price tag to hand over information on the province’s top polluters. Sierra Legal’s reply asks BC’s Information and Privacy Commissioner to waive the fee noting the public interest in the disclosure of pollution violations. The reply also highlights the government’s contradictory stance.
“The Minister of Environment’s recent public statements directly contradict his Ministry’s formal submissions,” said Sierra Legal Staff Lawyer Randy Christensen. “The Minister has claimed that compliance and enforcement are his number one priority, but yet can’t even identify which facilities in the province are in violation of provincial pollution laws.”
Sierra Legal had originally been informed that the province would charge the group $24,000 for information on the province’s polluting facilities – information previously freely available. After disputing that fee, the BC government’s asking price shot up more than seven-fold. Sierra Legal then took the case to the BC Information and Privacy Commissioner last month.
Now Sierra Legal is arguing over the accuracy and consistency in statements made both publicly by the BC government and in the Environment Ministry’s submissions. Although the province admittedly estimates that nearly 500 facilities in BC have a “known or likely human health impact,” the Ministry claims in its submissions that non-compliance reporting does not serve the public interest. Yet at the same time, the BC Environment Minister has announced plans to resume this very reporting. Further, contrary to comments by the Environment Minister in the Legislature, Sierra Legal did not turn down free information on the province’s polluters.
Sierra Legal’s reply submission emphasizes a similar situation in Ontario. After the Toronto District School Board had estimated a total cost of $6,000 to hand over requested records, the applicant appealed that cost and was subsequently told the revised fee would be over 5 million dollars. An adjudicator later ruled the higher estimate to be “unfair” and threw it out.
The BC government stopped publishing non-compliance information in mid-2001. The Commissioner could have a decision finalized within a few months.