Tim Halman is Nova Scotia's environment minister. (Robert Short/CBC)

CANADA - Environment minister says wetland policy 'clarification' is about building more housing

Nova Scotia Environment and Climate Change Minister Tim Halman says a recent "clarification" to staff about his department's wetlands policy is based on the need for more housing in the province.

"This is something where I think everyone needed a reminder that we are in a period of unprecedented growth," Halman said in a recent interview at Province House.

Documents obtained by CBC News in September outlined how the designation of wetlands of special significance would be applied.

Environmentalists have expressed concern that the policy is changing in a way that weakens protection, but Halman said there have been no changes to the policy. Rather, he said he was trying to ensure the existing policy is applied consistently.

The documents say housing is to be considered a necessary public function, and that designation will be weighed when someone applies to alter a wetland.

"I want a consistent application when it comes to determining whether or not a wetland should be altered vis-a-vis a potential housing development," said Halman.

It is possible to protect the environment and foster the development required to address the province's housing crisis, he said.

Ecology group says approach 'stuck in the 80s'

But Karen McKendry, with the Ecology Action Centre, said the idea of balance when it comes to protecting the environment is a notion that's "stuck in the 80s."

"We're way out of balance and I feel like that government isn't holding the line on some of the very basic, simple environmental protections we have under the Environment Act," she said in an interview.

McKendry said the designation of wetlands of special significance is supposed to protect an area from being altered because "it's so outstanding." That designation was already limited to areas that are home to an endangered species or salt marshes, or a wetland inside a protected area or park.

"So it actually applies to very, very few wetlands in Nova Scotia. And what we see in what the minister has called 'clarification' is actually a weakening of that small part of the policy that's supposed to be a no-go wetland," she said.

To clarify or modify that in the name of housing or other projects "is like kicking an underdog policy," she said.

"It applies to very few wetlands, very special wetlands and if that's not your line in the sand, are you really protecting wetlands at all?"

Fight over Dartmouth project

Halman said protests held a year ago about wetlands being altered for a housing development in Dartmouth put the issue on his radar. At the time, he dismissed appeals aimed at stopping the project. The wetlands there were not part of the special significance designation, according to the Education Department.

"I was aware of how passionate people were about wetlands. In that particular case, a very, very small part of the wetland was altered and terms and conditions attached to that alteration.

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