I am going to break one of my rules at my blog today and write briefly about work that is directly in my area of professional practice. My intention in this short piece is to explain in simple language some changes that are coming in the contaminated sites regime in British Columbia. The reason I am breaking my rule is that I have seen misinformation being spread by various groups and it is clear that someone who actually knows what they is talking about needs to step in to ensure that this misinformation does not remain unchallenged.
To provide some background, the Contaminated Sites Regulation (CSR) of the Environmental Management Act (EMA) provides the primary regulatory means by which the government of British Columbia regulates the investigation and remediation of contaminated sites in British Columbia. The CSR was enacted in 1996 and at that time the CSR included a number of Schedules that provide the soil (Schedule 4, Schedule 5 and Schedule 10), groundwater (Schedule 6 and Schedule 10) , vapour (Schedule 11 added in 2008) and sediment (Schedule 9 added in 2004) standards applicable under the CSR. For the most part (excepting vapours and sediments) the standards presented in these schedules were all developed in the years leading up to the implementation of the CSR in 1996. The standards, where possible at the time, were based on values called toxicity reference values (TRVs) which establish safe exposure concentrations based on toxicity testing. The derivation of these TRVs and how they are used in the assessment of risk (as well as the sources for preferred TRVs for risk assessment) are detailed in Technical Guidance on Contaminated Sites Document #7.
The Stage 10 Amendments to the CSR also known as the Omnibus amendments (the Omnibus changes) provides the first comprehensive update of the standards in the CSR since 1996. As readers can imagine, science has advanced a bit since 1996. A lot of toxicological research has been done and as a consequence we know a lot more today about numerous chemical than we did in 1996. The Omnibus is an attempt to bring our regulatory regime up to 2016 standards. As part of the exercise the British Columbia Ministry of Environment re-calculated every regulatory standard for every chemical currently regulated under the CSR using the best available science from 2016 (not 1996). The TRVs used in the work are derived from Health Canada and the United States Environmental Protection Agency (US EPA) values including the Integrated Risk Information System (IRIS). We depend on IRIS because the US EPA has been mandated by the US government to maintain the most recent TRVs and they are typically much more recent that the Health Canada values which are not updated as regularly. So let’s be clear here, the point of the Omnibus is to modernize our regulatory standards to scientifically defensible 2016 values. This appears to be a good thing in my mind.
For those questioning the science behind the changes, since 1996 it has become clear that the standards needed to be updated and as a consequence the Ministry of Environment (BCMOE) sought insight from an independent scientific body called the Science Advisory Board for Contaminated Sites in British Columbia (SAB). The SAB was “established as a non-profit foundation under the Societies Act of British Columbia to develop independent science-based tools of benefit to professionals working in contaminated sites management in British Columbia”. While partially funded by the BC Ministry of Environment (BCMOE) it is independent of government and provides a science-based approach to contaminated sites management in British Columbia. In 2010 the SAB provided a review of how the soil standards were derived and provided suggestions for how future standards be developed.
The biggest complaint I’ve seen from critics is that the new standards are less protective of human and ecological health. Well the truth is that in some cases acceptable concentrations went up, in others it went down. As an example, the acceptable concentration of benzene in soil at a residential property (with a drinking water use water standard) went down but the acceptable concentration of toluene in that same soil went up. The basis of these changes was the best available science in the field of toxicology, not the whims of the Minster of Environment. In addition, 123 chemicals that were not previously regulated are now regulated. So before the Omnibus perfluorinated compounds (PFOS) were not regulated but thanks to the Omnibus they will be. I’m not sure in what world regulating compounds that were previously not regulated makes the regulations “more lax”
Another complaint is that the process was secretive and there was insufficient consultation. The BCMOE maintains a “Contaminated Sites e-Link Mailing List” (CS e-Link) that emails subscribers regular updates on the comings and goings of the field of the contaminated sites management. Anyone can register for CS e-Link and a casual look at the archive shows that there have been literally dozens of updates provided for interested parties on the Omnibus changes. The CS e-Link archive includes details on how the standards were derived and included multiple opportunities for input and feedback from interested parties. It includes live links to how the standards were derived and all the opportunities interested parties had to provide input. It is absolutely laughable to read a critical statement like:
What is also lacking from the Ministry is evidence that the changes are science-based; I call on the Minister to provide independent and peer-reviewed scientific evidence that justifies the increases to allowable limits of contaminants
There is ample evidence that the work was science-based, there was ample opportunity for any group to provide feedback on the proposed changes. As this link points out dozens of organizations and groups had face-to-face meetings with the BCMOE on the topic. Simply put all the information was there, the critics simply didn’t appear to care enough about the topic at the time.
The best analogy I can think of is that the critics are acting like someone showing up at the end of the fourth quarter of a BC Lions playoff football game and claiming that no one knew it was happening and that they should re-start the game from the beginning. Every football fan in BC knew it was happening and the real fans were in the stands before the game started. Similarly every organization actually interested in the field of contaminated sites knew this was coming and were given the opportunity to provide feedback over the course of the exercise.
To conclude lets summarize.
- Anyone with any interest in the topic has known that the Omnibus changes were underway. The BCMOE has been engaged in a wide-ranging public consultation process for the last couple years and provided ample opportunity for interested parties to provide input on the process.
- The changes to the regulation are demonstrably science-based. They represent the best science available and contrary to what the critics claim anyone with an undergraduate science degree should be able to reconstruct every standard using the information provided by the Ministry.
- The standards did not get more lax, rather the standards were modernized to reflect the best available science in the field of toxicology. Some standards went up, some standards went down and 123 compounds that were previously not regulated will be regulated under the Omnibus changes. I’m not sure in what world regulating compounds that were previously not regulated makes the regulations “more lax”.