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An ad hoc coalition of B.C. environmental groups is asking the federal auditor-general to look into government flood-proofing claims to justify its approval of gravel mining in the Fraser River.

“The hope is the auditor-general will look at it and agree with us and there will be mitigation for ... loss of fish habitat or compensation for the damages done,” Frank Kwak, president of the Fraser Salmon Society, told The Progress. “We can’t just keep taking gravel out of this river unless there’s concrete proof there’s going to be flooding (if gravel is not removed).”

The petition follows the largest gravel removal operation in the river ever approved by federal fisheries, up to 400,000 cubic metres at Spring Bar near Seabird Island.

The 10-hectare site is considered “exceptional” rearing habitat by many for juvenile sockeye and chinook salmon, as well as habitat for other species protected by federal legislation, according to the petition sent to Auditor-General Sheila Fraser by the Fraser River Ad Hoc Stewardship Gravel Removal Committee.

The committee includes the B.C. Wildlife Federation, Fraser Valley Salmon Society, Sportfishing Defence Alliance, Fraser Valley Angling Guides Association, Chilliwack/Vedder River Cleanup Coalition and the Alouette River Management Society.

“Gravel removal at Spring Bar extensively damaged fish habitat with little or no gain to flood protection and erosion,” the committee charges in the petition.

“It is ... likely that this removal, over time, will partially or completely de-water a major pink salmon spawning habitat equivalent to the capacity for several hundred thousand reproducing fish.”

After an estimated 2.2 million pink salmon hatchlings were lost in a “de-watering” event at a gravel removal operation at Big Bar in March, 2006, the Department of Fisheries and Oceans issued a report with 10 recommendations, including the immediate creation of a multi-agency technical committee to jointly review future gravel extraction projects before approvals are made.

However, the committee believes technical advice has been ignored and most of the recent approvals to remove gravel “are the result of political pressure on the DFO to provide aggregate for the construction industry and have very little to do with flood or erosion control.”

“It is our opinion that the senior governments (provincial and federal) are using a climate of fear of flooding to justify gravel removal for the development industry in the local geographic area,” the committee says in the petition.

The DFO is “capitulating to local demands” for gravel removal, the petition continues, “at the expense of habitat and without due consideration to the appropriate habitat science and flood-prevention engineering, or the appropriate environmental legislation or policies.”

“We believe that the DFO has been deliberately obstructionist in regards to the transparency of its decisions,” the petition concludes, “has knowingly refused to require of proponents adequate information and assessment and mitigation and compensation for damage done, and has failed to meet the intent of Canadian fisheries and environmental law in respect to Fraser River gravel removal.”

The petition asked the Auditor-General to consider ten key questions including:

- Why the Spring Bar removal was approved when engineering and river studies “specifically” recommended against it due to the lack of flood or erosion benefits or benefits;

- Why the DFO ignored requirements under the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act to engage in full public consultations when it was “absolutely clear” that stewardship groups were “highly concerned” about the potential damage;

- Why the DFO held off authorization until several days before contractors arrived on site when a prior agreement states all approvals must be completed by Nov. 1 of the preceding year.

“The result of this last-minute authorization is that DFO ensured that the stewardship groups had no opportunity for review of this project, and were completely caught off-guard in respect to being able to provide adequate public comment prior to its commencement,” the committee charges.
 
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