Doug Ford’s latest threat to environmental protections & Ontario’s natural water systems
Among the suite of legislative actions taken by the ruling PCs to expedite development projects, changes to the way Ontario handles storm management could create dire environmental consequences in the future.
Currently, four proposals sit on the Environmental Registry of Ontario (ERO) that, if passed, would streamline the approval process for certain waste management, stormwater management and water systems by exempting them from licensing requirements.
The move could have a profound impact on Ontario’s water systems.
In some cases, for example, under the proposed legislative changes, seven times the natural water on site currently allowed to be removed for construction projects, could be “dewatered” without any requirement for a permit.
In order to fast-track a range of processes, the Ministry of Environment Conservation and Parks (MECP) is proposing changes that would remove the need for an Environmental Compliance Approval (ECA) which currently serves as a guardrail against reckless commercial activity and questionable public projects.
“We're transporting hazardous waste, asbestos, PCBs, biomedical wastes, all of which pose very significant risks to human health and the environment,” Ramani Nadarajah, legal counsel for the Canadian Environmental Law Association (CELA), told The Pointer. “And they'll be allowed to transport these waves across Ontario… without undergoing any kind of licensing requirements. So there's no upfront scrutiny by the Ministry staff before they commence operation.”
Weakened regulations around dewatering activities can potentially harm sensitive ecosystems.
(Joel Wittnebel/The Pointer)
Currently, under the Environmental Protection Act (EPA), activities such as waste management, stormwater and water taking systems must apply for an ECA before commencing the given activity. An application for an ECA requires the business owner to review land use planning guides, become acquainted with environmental regulations, consult with municipalities and Indigenous communities, then determine whether an environmental assessment is required. The timeline for approval of an ECA can span a year. The process ensures the project or site meets all standards for environmental controls that protect the natural environment and human health.
While the Doug Ford PC government has justified the removal of guardrails by claiming the process is too lengthy, Nadarajah said the most common reason for delay, identified by the Ministry itself, is due to issues with applicants, including construction companies seeking to work in and around natural water courses and systems. Blasting quarries that have proliferated across Caledon, for example, often require dewatering of an area, when the project excavates well below the natural water table.
In the past, activities for a wide range of commercial work that impacts groundwater, watersheds, wetlands and other hydrological ecosystem conditions, have required compliance with regulatory and licensing standards. Now, the PCs, in order to streamline many of these types of commercial activities, are claiming the environmental protections previously in place need to be altered to make it easier for private companies.
The claim of avoiding delays, as a justification for forsaking environmental controls, has been heavily criticized.
“It’s not delay caused at the ministry end, it’s delay caused because the applicants don’t provide their postal code, they don’t provide documentation,” Nadarajah said. “So I don't really think that the arguments the ministry is putting out are very compelling because that certainly wasn't the case.”
“The Environmental Bill of Rights would not apply for any third party who wants to appeal [these operations],” she told The Pointer. “The public would have no say in the matter if they could effectively cut not only government scrutiny, but also public scrutiny over these kinds of operations.”
The provincial government, once again, appears to be taking its direction from business owners and operators, while putting the environment at risk.
While certain environmental regulations themselves are not watered down in the government’s proposal to change the requirements, removing government and public oversight reduces layers of accountability that ensure standards are being met.
Construction generally requires dewatering of the area; under the proposed legislation, crews will be permitted to remove seven times as much water without notifying conservation authorities or requesting a permit.
(Alexis Wright/The Pointer)
In theory, before many of the legislative changes imposed by the Ford government, conservation authorities (CAs) would have a role to play in stormwater management and water taking activities. For example, under the current regulatory framework, construction sites must acquire a permit for extracting more than 50,000 litres of water per day. This value is proposed to be changed to 379,000 litres per day. However, continual dismantling of the jurisdiction of CAs has left them unable to provide necessary commentary on these activities.
In 2020 the PCs legislated Bill 229 with the highly contentious Schedule 6 which began to chip away at the mandate of Ontario’s 36 conservation authorities. This legislation amended the Conservation Authorities Act by allowing “a decision of a conservation authority to cancel a permit or to make another decision to be appealed by the permit holder to the Local Planning Appeal Tribunal (now the OLT).”
These changes were augmented with the passing of Bill 23 in late 2022 which reworked the wetland evaluation system, making it easier to build and drain water in these sensitive areas, as well as removing the authority to refuse a permit based on the factors of “pollution” or “conservation of land”.
The proposed legislation will completely remove CA ability to comment on or appeal to any water taking activity decisions. Under this new procedure, operators are not required to notify the CA of any water taking activity up to 379,000 litres per day.
The concern is not only the water that could be drained from the ground, worries also arise over the possibility of contamination of water if these activities are not played out with proper oversight.
“What normally happens now, for these kinds of operators, they're required to apply to the ministry, the ministry reviews the application, they make sure that they have the requisite training, and they have operation plans,” Nadarajah said. “Just like you would apply to get a driver's license, you have this level of regulatory scrutiny over it. What they're proposing to do is remove that requirement.”
“It's fundamentally different if there would be no upfront review, to make sure that a particular operator had all the correct documentation that they had the drivers were qualified and there would be no independent third party review to make sure that they actually were able.”
Waste management systems that transport hazardous waste, including asbestos and biomedical waste, have the potential to contaminate the natural environment and threaten human health if not properly transported and stored. Continued exposure to asbestos can increase the risk of lung cancer and mesothelioma, while other substances labelled as “toxic” under the Canadian Environmental Protections Act, like arsenic and other heavy metals, are known carcinogens. With a world that is still facing the consequences of a global pandemic, there is increasing fear surrounding the handling and storage of biomedical waste which, if tampered with, has the potential to spread infectious diseases.
Stormwater must be properly managed to avoid contamination of drinking water sources.
(Alexis Wright/The Pointer)
Stormwater management also stands to be exempt from current licensing requirements. Stormwater refers to runoff from impervious surfaces, managed to prevent flooding of communities. But improper management of runoff can lead to the infiltration of chemicals, bacteria and other toxic materials into our drinking water sources.
Much of Ontario still remembers the tragedy of the Walkerton crisis when, in the spring of 2000, heavy rains tormented the small town and the constant flow of water drew bacteria from a nearby cattle farm and drained into the shallow aquifer of a cracked well nearby. Unbeknownst to the community, E.coli bacteria had contaminated the drinking water of over 5,000 people. Over half fell ill and seven died.
A public inquiry found misconduct by public utility operators, failure of a privatized water testing scheme and budget cuts by the Mike Harris provincial government that destroyed safeguards for municipal systems, contributed to one of the worst public health drinking water disasters in Canadian history.
Over 20 years later, the Ford government is proposing to eliminate many of the guardrails that will increase the likelihood of repeating the tragedy.
The recently proposed changes to environmental regulations by the PCs are only the latest in a long line of actions taken by the Ontario government to weaken protections for sensitive greenspaces.
(Joel Wittnebel/The Pointer)
“The most fundamental lesson learned from Walkerton is how much we rely on the health of our environment for our own wellbeing,” Environmental Defence wrote in 2020. “It also shows us that what happens on the land impacts our water. It’s all part of an interconnected system. Our drinking water does not appear out of thin air. It comes from the lakes and groundwater aquifers near our communities. Those freshwater sources are vulnerable to threats if strong environmental rules aren’t followed.”
While the MECP has stated in its proposal that “environmental standards and protections will remain in place and continue to be a top priority for the government,” this is a prime concern for an industry that Nadarajah said has a history of non compliance.
The four proposals are open for comment on the ERO until October 30.
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