“To be effective in protecting the environment, the closed nature of the EIS process needs to end!”
By John Bacher
Posted May 1st, 2016 on Niagara At Large
Niagara, Ontario – In the midst of good news this last week of April about a plunge in municipal support for a bizarre scheme called “bio-diversity offsetting” to destroy protected provincially significant wetlands, some new revelations emerged with equally nutty twists and turns.
These revelations concern the research being done for an Environmental Impact Statement. (EIS) required for the Thundering Waters Secondary Plan for a “Paradise community” China-based developers are proposing to build on hundreds of acres of land in the southwestern end of Niagara Falls.
The reason an EIS document is so important is that it is the only barrier in the way of a developer wiping out natural landscape in Ontario that is not a wetland, with the exception of forests on the Oak Ridges Moraine or on lands on the Niagara Escarpment protected by the province’s Greenbelt rules.
Everything else is protected by the whims of municipal councils and the only body the rest of us have to appeal their decisions is the Ontario Municipal Board (OMB). And the only curb on their power are the scientific studies experts and others clash over at an OMB hearing as they debate the findings of an EIS.
Wetland policy in Ontario is actually tough and serious.
Since 1993 it prohibits what is termed “site alteration” in a provincially significant wetland (PSW). Protections for everything else -prairies, alvars, savannahs and dry forests – are a bad joke in this province.
If a wetland is deemed to be provincially significant it is protected – period! This is not the case for other ecosystems regulated under the Planning Act.
The protection for these areas, which are overwhelmingly dry forests, comes from integrity of an EIS. It is required to justify site alteration on large dry forests which are deemed to be provincially significant.
Forests so deemed are identified in our Niagara Regional Official Plan as Environmental Conservation Areas. (ECAs) They have weaker protection than Environmental Protection Areas (EPAs), which in Niagara are almost all wetlands and forests on the Niagara Escarpment.
The strangeness of policy that gives an EIS so much power, is the notion, common throughout North America, is that apart from wetlands, ecosystems can be destroyed as long as “their ecological function” is maintained. It is the role of the EIS to explain how this can be done if this is not possible, what parts of the dry forest should be protected.
The potential power of an EIS is spelled out in the Niagara Regional Policy Plan. In policy 12.2.3 it notes that EIS documents have the power to turn ECA lands into EPA by concluding that it is “warranted by the identification of a significant natural feature/function.”
This means that the EIS has the power to ensure that some area of dry forests should not be paved over for reasons such as providing important functions as wildlife habitat for rare species.
Regarding the significance of the 250 acres of dry forests surrounding the 210 acres of swamp wetlands in the Thundering Waters Secondary Plan area, what is obvious are the habitat requirements of the amphibians that live part of their lives in both wet and dry forests. There is one species in the wetland which provides an especially good example of this – the regionally rare Blue-Spotted Salamander.
At the public information session one of the disturbing revelations of the consulting team for the Thundering Waters project was their total lack of information about the time of spectacular movement for the Blue-Spotted Salamander.
This is a time known as the “Big Night.” During this great spectacle in early spring, which varies annually according to weather conditions, a procession of salamanders cross Dorchester Road from the Ontario Power Generation forest which buffers OPG’s hydro power canal, into the area of Thundering Waters Secondary Plan.
On the east side of Dorchester Road, before the salamander get to the protected wetland, there is a narrow band of dry forest. Where the salamanders march the consultants propose to erect high rise condominium towers. That the consultants during their period of research did not observe this has been encouraged with the secretive aspects of their study.
One public consultation on the Secondary Plan, which was attended by veteran environmental activist, Joyce Sankey, offered nothing of ecology, but stressed instead the wonderful shopping opportunities the Thundering Waters project would provide.
At a April 26th public meeting on the plan, the display boards did not reflect any of the species findings of the Environmental Constraints Study. (ECS) This ECS report marked “Draft” which provides background research for the EIS was only to be found in the hands of one of the experts who was there to answer questions from the public.
Scientific studies have documented how the destruction of dry forests have devastated the populations of salamanders which require habitats provided for some stage of their life cycle by adjacent dry forests.
This was shown in a doctoral thesis that studied species that depend on vernal pools for survival (called obligate species) by Dr. B. S. Windmiller in Massachusetts. Windmiller discovered that the construction of a subdivision close in a dry forest close to a wetland rich in vernal pools, caused a 40 per cent plunge in spotted salamander populations.
Air photos of the Niagara Falls Slough Forest show the potential for the same disasters of clearing dry forest immediately adjacent to vernal pools as has been well documented by careful study in Massachusetts.
A strip which the concept plan for the Thundering Waters Secondary Plan shows as a two street residential subdivision, (which being full of cats and dogs, could be a disaster for wildlife), is surrounded on two sides with vernal pool dotted wetlands. This subdivision is entirely within the 390 feet migration range of the Blue-spotted Salamander.
To be effective in protecting the environment, the closed nature of the EIS process needs to end!
One way of doing this would be to immediately put the ECS study on the City of Niagara Falls website.
People need to know now what species have been found in the Thundering Waters Secondary Plan area so that they can let those in charge of the study benefit from years of observation instead of six brief field visits.
John Bacher is a veteran conservationist in Niagara, Ontario and long-time member of the citizen group, Preservation of Agricultural Lands Society. A past contributor of posts to Niagara At Large, his most recent book is called ‘Two Billion Trees and Counting – The Legacy of Edmund Zavitz’.
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