Warnings About Threats to the Environment and Public Health and Safety

June 5, 2012

The ELC filed a request today asking BC’s Information and Privacy Commissioner to investigate whether public bodies are following the laws intended to release information about risks to the environment and public health and safety. Prepared on behalf of the BC Freedom Information and Privacy Association (FIPA), the submission highlights six cases where public bodies apparently failed to disclose information about risks, contrary to the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act.

OLIVER DAM COLLAPSE: The Ministry of Environment failed to warm residents that the Oliver dam was in dangerously poor condition, despite knowing this was the case for more than 30 years. The dam collapsed before this information was made public.

  • SEA LICE DATA: The Ministry of Agriculture and Lands failed to disclose data about sea lice concentrations at fish farms during the collapse of the pink salmon in 2002-2003. This data that was needed by scientists to investigate the collapse were only released years later when the Commissioner’s office ordered the information be released.
  • LYME DISEASE: The BC Centre for Disease Control and the Provincial Health Services Authority withheld information showing that the incidence of Lyme disease in BC was far higher than officially reported, denying the public and doctors information important for prevention and diagnosis.
  • SUSPECTED FUNGAL GROWTH: SFU failed to tell student residents, including an individual suffering from lung cancer and undergoing chemotherapy, that the building they would be moving into had extensive water damage and fungal growth – possibly mould, which poses significant health threats, particularly to individuals with weak immune systems.

The ELC argues that these, and other cases, may indicate a systemic failure of public bodies to proactively disclose information about risks to public health, safety and the environment. This type of disclosure is essential for citizens evaluate health and safety risks and prevent or mitigate environmental harm. Whatever the cause – perhaps public bodies are unaware of their duty to disclose this type of information – the ELC hopes BC’s Information and Privacy Commissioner investigates the situation and takes steps to ensure public bodies live up to their obligation to keep citizens in the know about risks to the environment as well as public health and safety.

[Download the PDF Submission to the Commissioner]

Link to FIPA’s media release Link to Vancouver Sun story [or the PDF version]

UPDATE: Commissioner’s Report Shows Government Needs to do a Better Job of Warning the Public

December 2, 2013

BC’s Information and Privacy Commissioner Elizabeth Denham released her report this week in response to the ELC’s June 2012 request on behalf of the BC Freedom of Information and Privacy Association (FIPA) to investigate whether public bodies are following the laws intended to warn the public about health, safety and environment hazards. Commissioner Denham’s report stated that the government did not meet their obligation under the law to disclose information about the compromised state of the Testalinden Dam to downstream residents. Other concerns raised through the investigation led the Commissioner to survey 11 public bodies. “In the course of investigating the public bodies named in the ELC report, it became evident to me that, in a number of instances, the public bodies did not clearly understand their obligations under s. 25 of FIPPA,” said Denham in the report. The Commissioner recommended that public bodies develop policies and establish training to ensure employees understand the obligations and the process. Her office will follow up to ensure policies are put into place and the plans to conduct an audit of s. 25 compliance in 2014-15. Perhaps most important, Denham also recommended the Act be amended so there is mandatory obligation for public bodies to disclose information of a non-urgent nature where disclosure is clearly in the public interest.

Media links:

2013 Dec 3 – On health and safety hazards, B.C. citizens betrayed by Victoria Stephen Hume, Vancouver Sun

2013 Dec 3 – Les Leyne: Dam inspectors stayed mum about risk, Times Colonist

2013 Dec 3 – B.C. Privacy Act: Public Interest Disclosure Requires Amendment, Says Commissioner, Huffington Post

2013 Dec 3 – Privacy laws hamper public-safety warnings, Elizabeth Denham says, Globe and Mail, Dirk Meissner

2013 Dec 3 – New report urges improved warnings of potential danger The Province

2013 Dec 3 – Privacy czar says law requires amendment The Canadian Press


Read the Submission

Read the Commissioner’s Report