It's been almost twenty years since Ontario established itself as a world leader in environmental protection. We created a variety of laws and policies that set the gold-standard for protecting the environment and public rights, including the Environmental Bill of Rights (EBR). The EBR guaranteed public scrutiny of all pollution permits. It allowed the public (you and I) to appeal government decisions to an independent environmental appeals board whenever there was a serious environmental or policy issue at stake.
Last week, without any fanfare, the Ontario government rolled-back these fundamental public rights (yours and mine). The government loosened requirements for public scrutiny of pollution permits. It weakened our right to appeal bad decisions. It encouraged and empowered polluters to regulate themselves. They did all this via a new law: the Open For Business Act. This Act, part of a wide-sweeping policy initiative, builds on the work of former Premier Harris's Red Tape Commission of the 1990's.
Nine years ago, we launched Lake Ontario Waterkeeper to save and celebrate Lake Ontario. As it turned out, we have spent most of the last decade fighting just to save our right (and your right) to try to save Lake Ontario. We have faced industry and government public relations campaigns to reduce public accountability and good decision making. We tried to side-step these campaigns by joining formal processes that scrutinized evidence, corrected mistakes and listened to public concerns before granting pollution permits. In that arena, we were highly successful in reducing pollutants entering our air and water, and in ensuring that promises made to government were enforceable.
Instead of recognizing the benefits of the process, industry and government have joined forces to gut environmental processes and slash environmental rights and protections. Despite our work, writings, submissions and policy research, Ontario is no longer a world leader in environmental protection. Recently, the federal government removed (or is in the process of removing) public rights to protect the environment by rolling back key sections in the Navigable Waters Protection Act, the Fisheries Act, and the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act. Despite our recommendations presented in April 2010, the Ontario government's Open for Business initiative keeps the trend going.
The Open for Business Act rolls back environmental protections on two fronts. First, it removes the obligation on the government to thoroughly review Certificate of Approval requests. By the government's own estimates, 75% of requests by industry to pollute will no longer be subject to public investigation or due diligence. The onus to conduct proper due diligence will be transferred from the regulator to the regulated polluters. In other words, Ontario polluters will now self-regulate. New operations and work plans for landfills - sources of potential environmental and economic carnage - will no longer require mandatory environmental hearings. In the past, evidence and argument were made in public, in the affected communities, and in front of independent decision-makers. In the future, decisions will be made behind closed doors based on information from only a privileged few.
The second attack on environmental protection in the Open for Business Act removes public rights: Our unfettered rights to be notified and to be heard when pollution permits are issued in our communities is gone. Our right to appeal permits where there is evidence that the MOE acted unreasonably or where there may be significant environmental impact has been weakened.
The first rollback might reduce government's "burden". It is hard to see the second rollback, however, as anything other than ideology - a blind desire to hand over regulatory oversight to polluters while simultaneously eliminating the public's ability to fill the vaccum left by an under-resourced and unmotivated government.
One of the most tragic consequences of the Open For Business Act is that it hampers the ability of groups like Lake Ontario Waterkeeper to do our job: protecting and celebrating Lake Ontario. The Open for Business Act does more to stop us from being heard than any other action government or industry could have taken.
Why on earth would the Ontario government want to do that?