12/02/2013 06:54 EST | Updated 02/01/2014 05:59 EST

B.C. Privacy Act: Public Interest Disclosure Requires Amendment, Says Commissioner

The Canadian Press

VICTORIA - Public bodies in British Columbia, including the provincial government, don't do enough to warn people about potential health, safety and environmental dangers, said the provincial privacy commissioner.

In a report released Monday, Elizabeth Denham recommends the B.C. Liberal government amend the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act to ensure people have more information about potential dangers before they occur.

Denham said information about issues such as the state of crumbling infrastructure, the location of marijuana grow operations and how long it takes for an ambulance to arrive should be available to the public.

Her report points out concerns that public bodies are not properly trained or even aware of the duty to inform residents about potential dangers that have been the subject of examination.

"I'm concerned that public bodies don't understand the mandatory nature of their duty to warn," she said in a interview. "It's not discretionary and it applies to all public bodies from school boards to municipalities to health authorities to all government ministries. Twenty years in and I am concerned the public bodies don't have the policies, the awareness, the training about the mandatory nature of this."

Denham said other laws, including the Public Health Act and Police Act, include public reporting provisions that are strictly followed, but it appears many public bodies only make public reports out of their sense of duty, but not from their obligation to do so.

"I'm assuming there's not a deep understanding of their obligation and the mandatory nature of this provision," she said. "I think the public cares about public infrastructure issues, animal health issues, water quality issues. I'm thinking of things like dispatch times for ambulances, location of grow-ops."

Denham said the wording of the privacy act, which calls for public reporting in issues of urgency, "needs to be dialled down so more information is getting out there."

Her report states the government didn't serve the public interest when it came to telling Oliver-area residents in the south Okanagan that the earthen Testalinden Lake Dam could collapse. In 2010, the dam breached and the subsequent flood caused massive property damage.

Denham's report cites a 1978 government report that stated: "The dam in its present condition is a hazard to life and property to some of the settled areas along the Osoyoos-Oliver Highway which lies downstream of the Testalinden Lake Dam."

Her report stated that disclosure of information about the dam from the Forests, Lands and Natural Resource Operations Ministry would have been clearly under the public's interest.

"The information about the risk of failure of the dam was information that the public did not know and that would have likely resulted in the local citizenry, at the very least, pressuring government to take remedial action," Denham's report stated.

But Denham's report sides with government decisions against issuing public warnings about concerns related to air pollution in Prince George, water pollution in the Cowichan Valley, mould at student residences at Simon Fraser University and Lyme disease in southern B.C., including Vancouver Island, because she agreed government investigations found no urgent or compelling need to inform the public.

Technology, Innovation and Citizens' Services Minister Andrew Wilkinson said the government will undertake a review to ensure government ministries are fully aware of their duties and obligations to report issues of interest to the public.

"The point that we need to do more to train the public service about this particular section of the freedom of information legislation is something we're looking forward to implementing," he said.

Wilkinson wouldn't comment on the Denham's opinion about the Testalinden dam, but added the Forests Ministry didn't agree with that interpretation.

Opposition New Democrat citizen's services critic George Heyman said Denham's report reveals the government's lack of commitment towards its duty to inform people of the dangers they may be facing.

"Clearly, no priority has been placed on informing people who work for government or public bodies that they actually have a legal obligation to release information in the public interest where it's urgent or compelling, and that's where the Ministry of Forests, Lands and Natural Resource Operations fell down," he said.

The Freedom of Information and Privacy Association called on the government to change the law to ensure more public information is available to British Columbians.

"The most shocking thing is the commissioner's finding that most ministries don't even understand that they are legally required to warn the public about risks to health and safety and to the environment, said association executive director Vincent Gogolek. "This critical law must no longer be ignored."

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