Making polluters pay? Ontario’s Annual Report on Drinking Water disappoints

November 23, 2009

(This blog is the first in a series on the Ontario Environment Minister’s Annual Report on Drinking Water for 2009.)

“Ontario is a leader in protecting drinking water.” So claims the headline accompanying last week’s release of the Environment Minister’s Annual Report on Drinking Water.

It seems that Minister Gerretsen has confused rhetoric with leadership. His report is strong only on the former. He speaks of his “aggressive agenda” and the “tough standards” in place. He threatens regulated industries with a stern warning: “We will not tolerate polluters. If you spill, you pay.” Fines for polluting emissions, he says, can amount to $100,000 per day per violation.

In fact, the money often flows in the opposite direction. Mr. Gerretsen admits that his government will provide $24 million over three years to help facilities comply with the requirements of the new Toxics Reduction Act. This undermines his boast that the province is making polluters “step up and pay.”

And Mr. Gerretsen doesn’t even pretend that preferred polluters – those that foul the environment with animal or human waste – must pay. He makes it clear that if they pollute, they are paid. He describes subsidies to farmers to help them keep livestock out of watercourses, subsidies to rural landowners to help them upgrade septic systems, and subsidies to communities to help them improve their sewage treatment plants.

Mr. Gerretsen’s report points to other ways in which these preferred polluters are coddled as well. The Toxics Reduction Act will apply only to “certain industrial sectors” rather than to sewage polluters. In May, when the Act was being debated, Environmental Defence urged the government to include sewage treatment plants in the Act and its regulations, pointing out that “sewage treatment plants are the Top 10 water polluters in Ontario, and are the largest reported releasers of mercury and lead into the province’s lakes, streams, and rivers.” Similarly, agricultural polluters get special treatment under the province’s new pesticides legislation. The Cosmetic Pesticides Ban Act prohibits the small-scale use of many herbicides, fungicides, and insecticides on lawns and gardens, but doesn’t address their far more significant use in agriculture.

If Mr. Gerretsen wants to demonstrate real leadership in protecting our drinking water, he will have to apply tough standards to all polluters. And he will have to require all to step up and pay – rather than be paid – for their pollution.

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