Intervenor: Vol 24. No 2 April - June 1999

Feds Fail to Protect Public's Health: CEPA Passes

Down, but not out. This is how environmental groups from across Canada have described the latest round in efforts to improve the proposed new Canadian Environmental Protection Act (CEPA), a cornerstone piece of federal environmental protection legislation. Important amendments were made to strengthen the bill by the House Standing Committee on Environment and Sustainable Development. Even as public interest groups were congratulating the Committee in improving a very weak bill, the Environment Minister was reversing much of the Committee's work. It is now up to the Senate, that parliamentary chamber of sober second thought, to reflect on the bill and give their views as to the adequacy of the bill.

The five year battle to improve the 1988 CEPA started in 1994 and has been described as one of the nastiest legislative battles to date. The Standing Committee on the Environment and Sustainable Development traveled across the country hearing submissions and then issued its report in June 1995 calling for a total revamping of the Act. The government then endured enormous pressure from the industry lobby to ignore the Standing Committee's report. By the time the legislation was introduced into first reading by December of 1996, industry fingerprints were all over it. When the election was called in 1997, the Bill had to be re-introduced. Even within this process, the new bill, Bill C-32, had been watered down again.

At second reading, Bill C-32 was referred to the Standing Committee for public hearings and section-by-section approval. During that stage, it was obvious there were real problems for the government. On a number of amendments, government backbenchers voted against the government. Other times, the opposition parties, with the help of some Liberal backbenchers, were successful in getting their amendments approved.

Some of the key improvements put forth by the committee include:

  • inserting an appropriate definition of "precautionary principle"that allows governments to take action, even if there is not an absolute certainty of harm. The bill had a precautionary principle that only allowed government actions that were "cost effective";
  • a clarification of the goal of "virtual elimination" that aimed to ensure that the most dangerous substances cannot be released in detectable amounts; and
  • a research program of "endocrine disrupting substances" and a progressive definition of these substances.

By the time the bill left the Standing Committee, the bill had been improved, the government thoroughly embarrassed, and the public disillusioned about the process. Meanwhile, industry had put together a full court press to dismantle the work of the Committee. This strategy worked. When the Committee's report was presented to Parliament, the Minister of the Environment had withdrawn 6 of the 11 key amendments that industry had lobbied against in preceding months, including the amendments pertaining to the precautionary principle and the virtual elimination goal. In fact, the changes by the Environment Minister with respect to "virtual elimination" assures that even the most dangerous substances will not be phased out. It can be argued that the bill now legitimizes the use and generation of these dangerous substances. Other changes also makes it more difficult for the Environment Minister to act with respect to transboundary air and water pollution.

When Bill C-32 went to the House of Commons June 1st, 1999 for third and final reading, three governmental backbenchers, all members of the Standing Committee took the unprecedented move of voting against the bill.

While most thought the fight was now over, the battle ground has shifted to the Senate. Exactly what will happen at the Senate is unclear. However, the Senate has apparently agreed to hold public hearings and revisit some of the key issues that were before the Standing Committee. The CEPA story continues, but what previous chapters do reveal is the raw influence of the industry lobby and the federal government's willingness to put short term economic interests in front of long term human health and environmental health goals.

Worth Quoting (from the press):

"The bill of a thousand cuts." -Liberal MP Karen Kraft Sloan "This is an example of how this bill is being weakened at the report stage. It is a very regrettable development because it is, in the end, at the expense of public health and the quality also of water and air. ... This bill could have been a reasonably good one if improvements made in committee had not been dismantled (by the government), if business interests had not been put ahead of public health, and if the official Opposition had performed an effective role."
Liberal MP Charles Caccia
[House Committee Chair]

"Everybody lobbied very hard for this bill: the environment [lobby], industry, everyone. But I think most moderate people will agree that it's a significant improvement over what we have today. ... It is legislation based on a pollution prevention principle, legislation that will address the most toxic substances with virtual elimination."
Environment Minister Christine Stewart

"Canadians are now stuck with a very flawed bill ... Nowhere in the law will it require elimination; only for reduction."
Paul Muldoon, Executive Director, CELA

Paul Muldoon is a lawyer at CELA