New auditor general report calls for action on environmental liabilities, court times

EDMONTON — Two newly-released reports from Alberta’s auditor general are calling on the province to address issues around its environmental liabilities and processes around criminal bail hearings and case management.

The reports were released together on Thursday afternoon.

Auditors undertook a review of the Alberta Energy Regulator, Alberta Environment and Parks and Alberta Transportation. They found the government had a $248 million in environmental liabilities at the end of March 2020, across 2,600 sites including orphan wells where the province has taken over the clean-up costs.

There are also an additional 324 gravel pit sites and 153 highway maintenance yards.

The report recommends addressing several issues around clarity of responsibility, funding sources and processes around those sites:

  • ​Lack of clarity between Environment and Parks and AER over who cleans up and pays for certain sites
  • Clarify funding sources for AER ​to clean up sites
  • No ranking to determine which clean-ups should be prioritized
  • Create effective system to know what it will cost to manage sites

It called for improved processes around estimating and accounting for environmental liabilities and to ensure compliance with environmental legislation.

“We recommend that the Department of Environment and Parks develop clear guidance to determine who is responsible to do the required work and pay for it when private operators across various industries no longer exist or are unable to perform the required work.​”

The report also found that Alberta Environment and Parks hadn’t followed recommendations from a 2015 report that it reduce what was then termed “significant risk” in the calculation of financial security for oil sands mine operators.

“Alberta Environment and Parks has not made satisfactory progress implementing the recommendation,” Auditor General Doug Wylie said.

The auditor general had previous warned about problems with the Mine Financial Security Program, which was designed to fund restoration of previously mined areas.

“After six years of analysis, the department has not decided if and how the security calculation should change.”​

GETTING CASES TO COURT

The report also examined the province’s handling of adult criminal bail hearings and case management.

By law, anyone arrested, but not released from custody, must have a bail hearing within 24 hours.

The audit found 11 per cent of nearly 46,000 first appearance bail hearings exceeded that time limit in 2019.

Auditors also looked at the justice system’s ability to get trials underway before legally-imposed time limits. A 2016 Supreme Court of Canada ruling, known as the Jordan ruling, sets out 18-month limits for a case to go to trial in provincial courts and a 30-month limit for Court of Queen’s Bench.

The report found that 66 cases had charges withdrawn or stayed between October 2016 and March 2020. Those cases included serious charges in cases around first-degree murder, child pornography, and sex assault.

​The report notes that the Alberta Crown Prosecution Service has “not performed, or reported, results analysis against target processing times for the various steps of the bail hearing process … since May 2019,” and called on ACPS to more regularly review its cases and develop a tracking system for when cases risk reaching the Jordan threshold.

“Without regular and continuing cause analysis of judicial decisions of cases stayed or withdrawn due to Jordan applications, ACPS will not have sufficient current information to identify any new trends or reasons for these decisions and identify what it can control and influence​.”

The report also cited prior recommendations that have been implemented around the Assured Income for the Severely Handicapped program, while noting some issues persist around processing time and improving procedures and guidelines. Eleven previous recommendations were also reported to have been implemented.

The auditor general is tasked “to examine and report publicly on the government of Alberta’s management of the public resources entrusted to it,” according to its website.​

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