By Edgar Tovilla

Cumulative effects assessment (CEA) is a concept that requires further understanding and analysis. This article examines the regulatory framework for CEA in Canada, particularly as it relates to the metal mining sector, which is highly regulated and scrutinized.

A regulatory scan was recently completed on federal and provincial water environmental protection policy, with a focus on Ontario, Quebec, Newfoundland and Labrador, British Columbia, Manitoba, Nunavut and the Yukon (NRC, 2014). Ninety-five percent of metal mining and exploration activity occurs in these jurisdictions.
The Canadian government and provincial/territorial jurisdictions recognize the need for CEA, but have no binding policies. There is ambiguity surrounding the term “cumulative effects” from a regulatory perspective.

The Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency (CEAA) defines cumulative effects as “the effect on the environment which results from effects of a project when combined with those of other past, existing, and imminent projects and activities. These may occur over a certain period of time and distance.”

Within this context, the associated effects from other activities are difficult to define and predict. CEA and management techniques are not fully developed to date and as a result they are not always effective.

CEA involves three dimensions of scale: spatial extent, level of detail, and temporal scale. It can cover extensive areas such as watersheds, typically encompassing several jurisdictions. It should also consider a time scale beyond a project lifespan, typically measured in hundreds of years, and examine specific effects on the environment to a meaningful level of detail. CEA provides an integrated and more strategic level to a site-specific environmental assessment process in that it addresses how the receiving environment “is affected by the totality of plans, projects and activities, rather than on the effects of a particular plan or project” (Therivel and Ross, 2007).

While principles of CEA can be explored and examined on a regional basis, it is only at the federal level where policy tools exist under the Fisheries Act, such as the Metal Mining Effluent Regulations (MMER), or the Pulp and Paper Effluent Regulations. Environmental effects monitoring (EEM) reports are required to better understand the potential negative effects of site-specific effluents on fish, fish habitat, and the use of fisheries resources. The EEM is a science-based performance measurement tool that assists in determining the adequacy of current regulated requirements (EC, 2012).

Additional opportunities to explore CEA exist at the provincial level with site-specific rule instruments, where local assimilative capacity studies provide indicator values for the spatial and temporal dimensions.
Nunavut is the only jurisdiction with a clear policy towards cumulative effects. With only one operating metal mine in the Kivalliq region and significant exploration within the same area, Nunavut works in partnership with Inuit organizations to enhance capacity and knowledge sharing in the territory.

Among other objectives, the intent of this partnership is to build knowledge on baseline water quality in the Kivalliq region, where there is the potential for more mineral development. It is in the process of establishing a cumulative effects monitoring framework for the Baker Lake watershed (NCNC, 2013).

The governments of Canada, British Columbia, and Ontario do recognize the need for CEA but have no binding policies. At the federal level, assessment of cumulative effects may be required by legislation when a project is subject to a federal environmental assessment under the CEAA, or in regulations under the Fisheries Act. However, no provincial jurisdiction was found to have binding obligations at a sector level.

The MMER – EEM reports provide the spatial and temporal dimensions needed for CEA. The Environment Canada response to Mining Watch Canada (AGC, 2012) noted that “the scope of the MMER – EEM requirements is restricted to effects at individual mines, and there is no requirement for study designs to collect data to investigate cumulative effects over entire watersheds. Environment Canada has not collected additional data and conducted analyses specifically targeted to investigate relationships between observed metal mining EEM effects and geographic or climatic categories.”

There is evidence of public requests to provincial governments to address the need to have cumulative impacts assessments (ECO, 2006: 14; ECO, 2012: 56). However, no other province or territory has a requirement for CEA.

In Ontario, the Environmental Bill of Rights (EBR) requires the Ministry of the Environment and Climate Change (MOECC) to have a Statement of Environmental Values (SEV), specifically requiring that MOECC “considers the cumulative effects on the environment; the interdependence of air, land, water and living organisms; and the relationships among the environment, the economy and society” (MOECC-SEV). While CEAs are not required, SEV is typically addressed at a very high level through the environmental assessment process, and site-specific studies at a micro-spatial and temporal scale.

Technical guidance, such as the 2004 Stormwater Management Design Manual, requires project proponents to consider cumulative effects in their design criteria, but this is not a regulated requirement. The Ontario Toxic Reduction Act has requirements for bioaccumulation of toxic substances, but, due to its lack of enforceability, its effectiveness relies on a voluntary approach (MacDonald and Lintner, 2010).

In British Columbia, while there are no requirements for CEA, there are considerations for a provincial multi-agency approach to provide recommendations and analysis that may contribute to cumulative effects assessments (BC-MEM, 2013: 2-3). The BC Water and Air Baseline Monitoring Guidance Document for Mine Proponents and Operators (McGuire, and Davis, 2012) notes the ambiguity surrounding the term “cumulative effects” and cites the same definition by the CEAA.

The BC mining guidance document refers “specifically to the combined effects on the environment from separate activities, including activities that are not associated with the proposed mine.” The document notes that, despite the importance of cumulative effects, current assessment and management techniques are not fully developed with respect to these. As a result, they are not always effective (McGuire, and Davis, 2012).

The provinces of Ontario, British Columbia and Quebec have developed provincial water quality programs with the goal of ensuring that their waters are protected and are of a quality that sustains aquatic life, supports ongoing recreational activities, and protects drinking water sources for current and future generations. These provinces have water quality objectives or benchmarks with specific water quality criteria to support a healthy population of aquatic life and protect human uses of surface water.

These water quality criteria are assessed on a site-specific basis in order to obtain approvals. Site-specific assimilative capacity studies provide indicator values for the spatial and temporal dimensions needed for cumulative effects assessment.

The water-receiver assimilative capacity study is by far the only available tool currently being required that considers the receiver’s existing water quality upstream, proposed discharges, and consequently downstream impacts.

Climate change considerations have given a renewed impetus for a cumulative effects type of analysis, but the cumulative effects assessment will remain an area of further study to find innovative ways to define it and implement it.

Edgar Tovilla, P.Eng. is manager of wastewater operations at the Region of Peel and a PhD candidate at Ryerson University. This article appears in ES&E Magazine’s October 2017 issue.

References cited are available upon request.