In the last year, we have witnessed an unprecedented roll-back of environmental regulation across Canada. Federal and provincial governments alike have reduced their oversight of polluting industries and weakened citizens’ rights to protect themselves and their environment.
To facilitate the development of pipelines and other industrial projects, the federal government’s 2012 budget gutted the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act. It cut the number of projects that require reviews, limited the number of eligible intervenors, sped up the review process, and eliminated consideration of cumulative effects. Environmental lawyer Dianne Saxe summarized the result: “resource project proponents should find it quicker, easier and cheaper to get permission to build what they want, with far less interference from the federal government, or those pesky environmental groups.”
The government also weakened the federal Fisheries Act – an act whose tough provisions had been the target of aggressive lobbying by energy and mining associations. The revisions did away with broad prohibitions against harming fish or fish habitat, putting in their place only prohibitions against “serious harm to fish that are part of a commercial, recreational or Aboriginal fishery.”
Last month, the government introduced a bill reducing the reach of the Navigable Waters Protection Act. Tellingly renamed the Navigation Protection Act, the law will no longer apply to all Canadian waters – only to 97 lakes, 62 rivers, and three oceans. The bill also exempts the construction of the Windsor-Detroit bridge from requiring a number of environmental permits – all to ensure that the bridge avoids lawsuits and “is constructed without delay,” according to Transport Canada.
Here in Ontario, provincial regulators are likewise putting the well-being of industry above the health and safety of citizens. This Fall, Ontario Environmental Commissioner Gord Miller criticized the Ministry of Environment for its “slow and weak” regulation of Essroc, a large cement producer whose dust emissions have bothered downwind residents for almost a decade. Although MOE has determined that the company’s emissions are both harmful and illegal, it has refused to issue control orders or to charge or fine the company. Mr. Miller’s frustration was apparent: “I question how MOE can confirm that people are being adversely affected by industrial dust emissions and then allow the problem to persist for years.” Unfortunately, the government’s coddling of Essroc is not unusual. Mr. Miller has in the past been critical of “the slow pace of enforcement for chronic offenders or when high risk contaminants were involved.”
As he sounded the alarm about regulators not doing their job, Mr. Miller also raked them over the coals for preventing citizens from being involved in environmental protection on their own. Ontario’s Environmental Bill of Rights enshrined the public’s right to participate in environmental decision making. But the public service increasingly ignores this right. Mr. Miller expressed astonishment at “the degree of disregard and contempt that is shown to statutory requirements of the EBR each year.” The Ministry of Natural Resources and others “persist in hiding environmentally significant decisions from public scrutiny and comment in open defiance of the clear intent of the statute.”
Nature abhors a vacuum. The systematic weakening of environmental regulation has created a vacuum that desperately needs to be filled. But we don’t simply need new regulations. We need a better process – one that returns environmental protection to affected citizens. Governments have shown time and again that they won’t protect the environment. Consolidating decision making in their hands allows them to favour special interests at the expense of ordinary citizens. We must reverse this trend.
Environment Probe is renewing its call to restore common-law property rights. No rights have been as effective at empowering citizens to fight developments that harm them. Where property rights alone are not enough, we advocate clear laws that apply across the board and can be enforced by citizens when governments fail to act. Please support our work to ensure that we can all enjoy a clean, safe, and healthy environment.