Premier John Horgan has asked his deputy minister to lead a review of the province’s animal health lab that has landed Agriculture Minister Lana Popham in hot water at the B.C. legislature.
Horgan tasked Don Wright with sorting out whether allegations about the “integrity” of the lab’s science are founded.
Wright, who is also the head of the public service, will work with the Public Service Agency.
The allegations come amid fish-farm protests and questions from the Opposition Liberals about the appropriateness of Popham’s political role in launching the review.
The province says a scientist, Kristi Miller-Saunders, challenged the integrity of the lab’s research when interviewed for a report on the CTV program W5. Miller-Saunders is head of the molecular genetics program at the Department of Fisheries and Oceans’ Pacific Biological Station in Nanaimo.
“If we have a federal scientist on national television drawing into question the work of provincial scientists, it only stands to reason for reasonable people to say: ‘Let’s get to the bottom of that,’ ” Horgan told the legislature. “That’s exactly what we’re doing.”
The Opposition Liberals, however, have accused Popham in the legislature of targeting fish pathologist Gary Marty, who works at the lab and has disputed claims that open-net fish farms pose a high risk to wild stocks.
Horgan and Popham denied that Wednesday.
“This is not about Dr. Marty,” Horgan said. “It is about the lab and how the federal government views the work of that lab.”
The issue dominated question period for the third straight day Wednesday. The Liberals went after Popham for leaving the impression that the Department of Fisheries and Oceans, rather than a single scientist, had complained about the lab’s research.
“We now know that there have been no official complaints against the province’s Animal Health Centre,” said Liberal critic Michelle Stilwell, MLA for Parksville-Qualicum.
“The facts that the minister tried to create simply don’t exist. Instead, if the minister is supposed to be believed now, all of this seems to be based on the concerns raised by a single individual.”
DFO said in a statement Tuesday that, while it made no formal complaint, the B.C. government was being “diligent” in following up on Miller-Saunders’ concerns.
Horgan, who fielded all the questions directed at Popham in the legislature, said the Liberals are blowing up the issue “like an atomic bomb.”
“The concern that the public has is there’s a dispute among scientists about the impact of finfish aquaculture on our wild salmon stocks,” he said. “And an appropriate response from a government official, a minister responsible for that lab, is to get to the bottom of it, and that’s what we’re doing.”
Popham said her office organized a call with Miller-Saunders after seeing the scientist on W5.
“This was on national television and there was accusations about our provincial lab, one that I am the minister of. So along with my staff, my deputy minister, we organized a call,” Popham said.
While she acknowledged that the public service is the appropriate venue for a review, she defended the phone call, saying it wasn’t out of line for a minister to step in. “I obviously was interested in why there were those accusations, so I think it’s absolutely appropriate.”
The allegations causing concern are unclear. Popham has repeatedly said they are about the “integrity” of scientific data.
She sidestepped questions from reporters Wednesday who asked if she was investigating an allegation expressed on the program about a conflict of interest.
“I’m not doing anything with [that], this is in the hands of the public service,” Popham said.
“It’s an allegation by a scientist against our science. That’s a serious allegation.”
The review will determine if best practices and ethical standards are followed, including against potential conflicts of interest, according to the terms of reference.
It will look at how policies are implemented and whether they are communicated clearly.
It will not review the conduct of individuals, the government said.
Popham’s investigation comes amid ongoing protests at three fish farms off north Vancouver Island in the Broughton Archipelago. Fish-farm opponents have also occupied Popham and Horgan’s constituency offices.
Open-net pens allow water to flow freely between farmed salmon and the ocean environment, which some environmentalists say exposes wild stocks to viruses and disease. Some First Nations have argued the farms are operating in their traditional territory without their permission.