'' Lessons from Kalamazoo: Will Harper listen?

In July 2010, an Enbridge oil pipeline ruptured near Michigan's Kalamazoo River. Three million litres of oil spilled into the river, causing extensive damage, killing fish and wildlife, and leading to the evacuation of local homes. The spill cost $800 million to clean up - the most expensive onshore spill in U.S. history.

It looks like one of the biggest victims of this spill will be Enbridge's Northern Gateway pipeline proposal.

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But the more important lesson is being missed. For the Michigan disaster highlights Ottawa's supreme folly - dismantling our environmental laws at the same time as it approves dramatic expansions in resource industries.

Last month, the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board issued a scathing report on the Kalamazoo spill, concluding:

? Enbridge failed to fix the corroded pipe for five years, even though they knew about the corrosion problem.

? For 17 hours after the spill started, Enbridge ignored alarms and proper procedures and continued to pump new oil into the broken pipe. This new oil made up 81 per cent of the total spill. Enbridge stopped pumping only after a bystander told the company of the oil escape.

? Enbridge mishandled what could have been a relatively minor spill due to "pervasive systemic problems" within the company.

The chairwoman of the NTSB summed it up succinctly. She likened Enbridge's response to the spill to the Keystone Kops, the spectacularly inept bunglers of silent film fame.

It is important to note that the U.S. findings bear directly on the Stephen Harper government's radical policy of deregulating the environment.

Reviewing the Michigan incident, the NTSB focused on how essential it is for governments to vigorously regulate industry. Its report identified "weak federal regulations" on pipeline corrosion as a cause of the initial spill. And it cited lack of enforcement staff as a cause of the botched cleanup. For example, the government's lack of staff meant nobody scrutinized the company's spill-response plan - and missed the little detail that the closest spill response contractor was out of state and more than 10 hours away.

The NTSB chairwoman blamed a weak regulatory regime that allows private companies to police themselves.

But there is also regulatory culpability. Delegating too much authority to the regulated to assess their own system risks and correct them is tantamount to the fox guarding the henhouse.

Regulators need regulations and practices with teeth - and the resources to enable them to take corrective action before a spill, not just after.

What a concept - regulations need teeth! And regulators need resources to enforce the law. Yet, this is precisely the opposite of what the Harper government is now doing.

Ottawa is systematically defanging Canada's environmental laws and slash-ing enforcement staff.

For example, this summer the Harper government moved toward the very self-policing model the NTSB decried:

? The government rewrote the Fisheries Act to drop general protection for fish habitat, which will slash government oversight of the proposed Enbridge 773 stream crossings.

? It gutted the Environmental Assessment Act, requiring far fewer environmental assessments.

? Government lawyers are reportedly now working on similar evisceration of the Species at Risk Act and the Navigable Waters Protection Act.

Worse still, Ottawa is drastically cutting the staff needed to enforce the laws. Hundreds of fisheries staff positions have been chopped. Hundreds more are being eliminated at emergency-response programs and Environment Canada. Wholesale layoff notices are going to scientists who investigate industrial impacts on the environment.

All this deregulation is coming when environmental risks are soaring. Government is shredding the environmental safety net just as mining booms - and as we ramp up development of the world's third-largest reserve of oil.

As Canada's industries prosper, we can afford to do far better than this. What we cannot afford is to lose the natural splendour that defines this country.

Calvin Sandborn is legal director of the University of Victoria Environmental Law Centre.

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