Ontario fails to get passing grade on environment issues

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TORONTO – The Ontario government has deliberately ignored the public’s right to be heard on significant environmental issues in 2020/21 by bypassing the Environmental Bill of Rights (EBR), said Ontario’s Auditor General Bonnie Lysyk. 

“The Environment Ministry’s actions amount to undermining the Environmental Bill of Rights, a law that we would expect the Ministry to be championing,” Ms. Lysyk said. “This has been consistent over the last three years.”

The Office of the Auditor General released four value-for-money audits on November 22: Reporting on Ontario’s Environment, Protecting and Recovering Species at Risk, Non-Hazardous Waste Reduction and Diversion in the Industrial, Commercial and Institutional Sector, and Hazardous Spills.

“They’ve missed the benchmark on everything,” said Algoma-Manitoulin MPP Michael Mantha. “You put it on the list and they’ve received an F on everything.”

The law provides Ontarians with rights to information and public consultation on environmentally significant decisions, and the right to ask for a review or to appeal environmental decisions, explained Ms. Lysyk in a statement. These rights are enshrined in law and are similar to human rights, employment rights and French language rights.

The report cites one case where the government failed to consult the public on changes to the Environmental Assessment Act by passing legislation to retroactively exempt the Ministry from that requirement. In another example, there was no consultation under the EBR about changes to the Conservation Authorities Act because the changes were included in a budget bill. 

“This government is ignoring the public,” said MPP Mantha. “The government is ignoring their responsibility for going out to the public and engaging with the public, organizations and environmental groups, in order to hear what the concerns are for the environment. The government is just bypassing and bulldozing ahead with their agenda. They’re making it easy for friends in order to pave or build and we are losing wetlands and we’re losing farmlands. The Greenbelt is under threat. This is the government that we have right now. Unfortunately, they completely missed many benchmarks within the environment.”

The species at risk audit found that development projects that may harm species at risk are automatically approved due to lack of direction on when to reject permit applications that would do harm, the audit found. Since 2009, the number of approvals for development and other projects that harm protected species has increased by more than 6,000 per cent. Other findings include a species-at-risk advisory committee that is dominated by industry representatives, with six appointees in 2019 and 2020 not undergoing the standard screening and recommendation process.

“Our audit found that, in the absence of substantive actions, the condition of species at risk in Ontario will continue to deteriorate and more species will be added to the list,” said Tyler Schulz, assistant auditor general and commissioner of the environment in the Office of the Auditor General. “Protecting these species is critical to reduce the loss of nature and its contributions to Ontarians and to safeguard the environment and our economy.”

Another audit found that the steps the Ministry of the Environment has taken to date will not significantly improve waste diversion from businesses and institutions, and Ontario’s overall diversion rate will suffer. Businesses and institutions generate at least 7.2 million tonnes of waste per year, or 60 percent of the waste in Ontario, compared to 40 percent that is residential waste. In 2018, 50 percent of residential waste was diverted while only about 15 percent of industrial and business waste was diverted. 

A key finding of the hazardous spills audit revealed that while there were more than 73,000 hazardous spills reported in Ontario between 2011 and 2020, the Ministry of the Environment, Conservation and Parks attempted to recover its costs only three times and even then, only went after roughly half of the $1.3 million spill response cost that was incurred. The audit report estimated unrecovered spill costs potentially costs taxpayers tens of millions of dollars. 

In total, the auditor general reports included 61 recommendations on the environment report, 21 recommendations to protect species at risk, 17 recommendations for meeting waste diversion and landfill targets and 13 recommendations in the hazardous spills report.

“I’ve heard from plenty of constituents in my riding and across Northern Ontario with their concerns,” MPP Mantha stated. “People can always, always engage directly with government. Make a call and send your letter. The government is building highways over wetlands. Their words do not come close to matching what their actions are, and this is quite concerning. It’s not even that the government is not doing so well. The government is not doing, period.”