Sierra Legal Defence Fund released its annual report on chronic polluters in Ontario today. The list of unpunished environmental crimes is long, and many of the names are repeat offenders from previous years: Ontario Power Generation, Cameco, Inco, etc.
Sierra Legal obtains the data through Ontario's Freedom of Information process, relying on sample results provided to the government by industry. Year after year, Sierra Legal's survey reveals thousands of water violations. Year after year, the long list of violations is accompanied by government's dismal enforcement record.
Year after year, Ontario's response is the same: "The government has taken action. We're seeing significant improvements now." The spokesperson for the Ministry of Environment is also the same: John Steele. Mr. Steele is the official voice of the MOE. He occupies a position created by the Harris government, intended to control all interactions between the media and the ministry.
The spokesperson is an expert at alleviating public concern. He reassures us that poor air quality is a localized problem, and that year-old statistics are no longer relevant. Always, the spokesperson promises us that the government is taking pollution seriously. Always, he assures us that polluters are making improvements.
All of which begs the question: When did the Ministry of Environment spokesperson become the apologist for pollution?
The smooth response of government masks the urgent need to protect our environmental rights. This communications strategy has clearly lulled the press: the Globe & Mail, Toronto Star, and Toronto Sun could not be bothered to write their own responses to Sierra Legal's report, perhaps daunted by the impenetrable fortress of the spokesperson's office.
No matter how fast the spin flies, how superficial the media's stories are, Sierra Legal's research is validated by living just one day on Lake Ontario. The beaches are closed more than they are open. Our drinking water plants work night and day to filter contaminants from our tap water. The fish are too contaminated to safely eat or reproduce.
It is time for the Ministry to stop downplaying the public's concerns about pollution. Introduce transparency to the Ministry of Environment. Enforce laws diligently. Measure success based on results. Now that's reassuring.