Intervenor: Vol 24. No 2 April - June 1999

A Tale of Two Environmental Laws

While the courts breathe life into federal environmental assessment law, Ontario suffocates similar provincial legislation designed to protect the public. Ontario's actions threaten rural communities in western and eastern Ontario facing mega-dump proposals.

The Federal Court of Canada, in a decision issued in April in Edmonton by Mr. Justice Douglas Campbell, quashed a federal permit for an open-pit coal mine near Jasper National Park. The project would have dumped millions of tonnes of waste rock in environmentally sensitive areas, such as migratory bird habitats, in violation of federal laws. The court ruled that a federal hearing panel had failed to consider all relevant information on, reasonable alternatives to, and cumulative environmental effects of, the project.

In contrast to this affirmation that environmental assessment law should ensure we "look before we leap," is the conduct of Ontario. Since 1997, Ontario has gutted provincial law designed to protect the public--primarily rural and farming Ontario--from literally being buried in millions of tonnes of municipal solid waste-primarily from Toronto.

Where mega-dump proponents once had to demonstrate that their proposals were needed and that there were no better alternatives, now such projects are routinely approved without demonstrating they are needed, without examining alternatives, and without public hearings. Environmentally speaking, this is not common sense.

Surprisingly, the current residents of Queen's Park have stated repeatedly their commitment to environmental assessment law. Michael D. Harris, as Opposition Leader, endorsed full environmental assessments for waste disposal sites. In October 1992, the future Premier decried the failure of the government of the day to apply Ontario's law fully to waste disposal sites: "These sites are not subject to the fullest kind of environmental assessment, and we are appalled at that ... I will commit that there will be a full environmental assessment, that all alternatives must be considered."

"Under the new act weare passing we will begiving waste disposal
sites full environmentalassessment. I don't seewhat has changed."

Environment Minister
Norm Sterling

 

As Premier, Mr. Harris endorsed the application of the Environmental Assessment Act to waste disposal sites. In October 1995, he stated: "I want to say very clearly to the member that the last time a government decided to skip full environmental assessments, skip the wishes of the people, skip this whole process, short-circuit everything, was when his party was in power and they proceeded to try to force mega-dumps on the people in and around Metropolitan Toronto without a full environmental assessment. ... I want to tell you that we made a decision then and there that that was not the role of government-not to short-circuit the process."

In October 1996, Ontario's environment minister, the Hon. Norman W. Sterling, on the eve of amendments that would short-circuit the province's environmental assessment law, stated: "... under the new act we are passing we will be giving waste disposal sites full environmental assessment. I don't see what has changed."

Unfortunately, everything. No waste disposal site proponent under the new amendments has been required to conduct a "full environmental assessment," to demonstrate need for, or alternatives to such proposals. None has been subject to public hearings on these issues.

Ontario has 120 million tonnes of waste disposal capacity. In western Ontario alone, we have 70 million tonnes, sufficient capacity to provide disposal services for this region for 30 years. In eastern Ontario, there is sufficient capacity for 16 years of disposal. Despite this surplus capacity, waste disposal companies seek approval for huge landfills, without proposing to demonstrate need for their projects or to examine alternatives. One company, Canadian Waste Services Inc., seeks approval for two mega-site expansions-one each in western and eastern Ontario-that would add 38 million tonnes of new disposal capacity to the 120 million tonnes we have already.

Enormous waste disposal site projects threaten to defeat public policy on waste reduction, reuse and recycling, speed up resource depletion, chew up farm land, and degrade other features of our natural heritage. When faced with such threats 25 years ago, the Davis Government enacted what turned out to be a vigorous environmental assessment law. The Harris Government needs to apply this law with equal vigor; not dismantle it.

Judge Campbell's decision points to where Ontario should head with its environmental assessment law. If we can protect the habitat of migratory birds in western Canada from being buried in millions of tonnes of waste rock, we can protect Ontario's rural and farm communities from being buried in millions of tonnes of garbage. That would be common sense.
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Joseph Castrilli is an environmental lawyer and a CELA board member