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"Everyone involved knows that the current environmental assessment process can be slow, often confusing and costly." -- Minister of the Environment, Laurel Broten
In the last few weeks before the Ontario Legislature's summer break, we are seeing a flurry of environmental discussion. Energy woes are front page news. Waste diversion (aka, garbage) is a concern for every municipality. Sewer systems are on everyone's mind as we head down to the beaches to beat the heat.
Over the next five months, we just may see the Government of Ontario offload many of its most important environmental decisions. In each case, responsibility is being shifted to the institutions that are the least likely to understand or embrace the public interest.
A handful of examples include:
Last week, the Minister of Environment reassured Ontarians that all new nuclear plants will undergo a full federal environmental assessment. The problem is, according to most environmental lawyers, a nuclear plant also requires a provincial environmental assessment, a different and equally important legal process. This is an especially important check, given the Government of Canada's stake in the nuclear industry: it supports the nuclear lobby group Atomic Energy of Canada Limited to the tune of $100 million.
Waste issues like landfills, incineration, and alternative fuels are also top of mind in many Ontario communities. Unfortunately, decisions are being made on a case-by-case basis, without connecting to a broader provincial strategy. For example, York and Durham are set to launch a new incineration program that could provide the fuel pellets for Lafarge's cement kiln in Bath, Ontario. In the case of the Lafarge Alternative Fuels project, the studies are all paid for and conducted by the company itself, without independent verification by the province. Both the York/Durham and the Lafarge Alternative Fuels Project public study periods will continue over the course of the summer.
Accountability for infrastructure is also being downloaded to municipalities, the same institutions that are responsible for paying for upgrades and maintenance. As a result, many communities are seeing little investment in aging pipes and municipalities are ignoring the voluntary environmental standards meant to eliminate leaky combined sewer systems.
"Taking steps to address source water protection without fixing the pipes through which the water flows, is futile. Our new clean water is still traveling through old and corroding pipes to our homes. Our waste water is still flowing through aging pipes that allow sewage to pollute our lakes and rivers. The Report of the Walkerton Inquiry and the Water Strategy Expert Panel Report both called for quick action to ensure that our water and wastewater systems are sustainable. The government has responded with study and delay not decisive action," wrote a spokesperson from the sewer and watermain construction industry to the Globe and Mail.
Perhaps most alarming is the concerted effort to undermine the provincial environmental assessment process. The province calls it "streamlining," the latest euphemism for restricting due process. Part of the "streamlining" of environmental assessments includes eliminating the need for any site-specific study at old mine sites. This mine hazard rehabilitation program is part of a province-wide program that addresses mine hazards that have potential natural environmental implications; or the potential to jeopardize public health and safety
These kinds of changes are hailed by the Toronto Star, which accuses opponents of landfills and incinerators of trying to, "block them using the environmental assessment process for political, rather than scientific, reasons."
While business-like rhetoric that promotes efficiencies, science, and expertise might sound good in the press, it rings hollow in communities who are faced with massive environmental projects such as energy plants, mine sites, and landfills.
Ironically, as the government dances around these important decisions, the public is left only with the weakest environmental process. We get notification through the Environmental Registry, but announcements are often cryptic and information easily slips through the cracks. We get environmental assessments, but only those led by the proponents of a project. We get "Town Halls", but no hearings where experts testify under oath and can be questioned by citizens. We get decisions, but no independent decision-makers.
When we try to "streamline" democracy, we're left with shoddy processes that truly are confusing and, as a result, slow. And that is what's costly.