Our Natural Heritage is being Ill-Served by those now running this Broken Conservation Authority
A News Commentary by Niagara At Large reporter and publisher Doug Draper
Posted October 12th, 2018 on Niagara At Large
“You have all of these special ecosystems in Niagara,” said veteran Canadian environmentalist John Jackson during his talk on the Great Lakes, hosted in St. Catharines this October by the Niagara District Council of Women. “You have so many special places here in this region. … It is so important to protect them.”
Jackson knows what he is talking about when it comes to those special places because the Waterloo area activist has spent a good deal of his adult life in Niagara, helping local citizen groups battle one proposal or another that posed risks to healthy communities and the environment.
Eighteen of those years – in the 1980s and 90s – were spent helping Niagara citizens successfully defeat a plan by a now-defunct Ontario crown corporation to build and operate a giant toxic waste disposal facility in West Lincoln when, Jackson said, some of those citizens would take him on tours of woodlands, marshlands and other natural places he came to treasure.
It is too bad that the people of our region no longer has a Niagara Peninsula Conservation Authority (NPCA) that shows the same passion and dedication for protecting and preserving what are left of these special places as citizen activists like John Jackson have.
Over the past four or five years, it has become obvious to growing numbers of Niagara citizens, l municipal council representatives and MPPs from ridings in this region that the NPCA has traded away its focus on conservation and environmental protection to accommodate the narrow interests on some of the least progressive members of the development and agriculture community – a charge that St. Catharines regional councillor Bruce Timms, Fort Erie regional councillor Sandy Annunziata and other members of an NPCA board of directors stacked with Niagara regional councillors and mayors have repeatedly and vehemently denied.
A detailed audit of the NPCA’s operations, conducted by the office of Ontario Auditor (AG) Bonnie Lysyk and released in a report late this September, tears the mask of the NPCA honchoes’ denials and confirms that the charges made by citizens and those municipal and provincial politicians who were brave enough to speak out were right.
The Auditor General’s 103-page report details a long list of examples of where work on projects aimed at conserving, protecting or enhancing natural areas falling under the NPCA’s jurisdiction has either fallen behind or has stopped.
At the same time, a number of expert conservationists working for the NPCA were either fired or laid off, and the amount of money the NPCA receives from taxpayers in Niagara and the neighbouring Hamilton and Haldimand regions and going to administrators, outside consultants and lawyer s, and per diem payouts to board members has jumped significantly over the past four or five years.
Here are just a few of many examples, quoted word for word from the AG report, of conservation work that has been given the short shrift or has fallen by the wayside –
- The NPCA has not done any work on improving water quality since it suspended its restoration program in July 2017. One way the NPCA undertook to improve water quality was through a program to carry out restoration projects in collaboration with landowners. In July 2017, the NPCA suspended this program after identifying concerns about the program and engaged an external consultant to review it. The NPCA began accepting applications for the new restoration program in August 2018.
- The NPCA has not spent $3 million it received from Ontario Power Generation (OPG) in 2007 as was agreed to with OPG. The NPCA was to spend the funding between 2007 and 2012 on projects aimed at improving the health of the Welland River, but by 2018 had spent only $1.45 million, and 27% of that amount (or $390,000) has been spent on projects that do not meet the agreed-to eligibility requirements
- The NPCA does not have complete and up-to-date information about flood risks within the lands in its jurisdiction. The NPCA does not have maps that identify flood prone areas for over half of the watercourses in its jurisdiction. The unmapped areas include about 14,500 dwellings and commercial buildings near the watercourse. In addition, almost one-quarter of the maps that have been completed are outdated, having been completed between 20 and 43 years ago. About 51,700 structures are located near the flood lines shown in the outdated maps.
- In some cases, the NPCA has taken little or no action when the Conservation Authorities Act is violated (for example, when wetlands are destroyed or debris is dumped into a waterway). One-quarter of the complaints we reviewed from the public about possible Act violations between 2013 and 2017
- We reviewed a sample of public complaints about possible violations that the NPCA had logged as having been received between 2013 and 2017 and found that one-quarter of the complaints were still open, meaning that the violation had not been dealt with and the damage or alteration to the environment had not been fixed. Some dated as far back as 2014. The AG report goes on and on with findings like this, including the role administrators and board members in the NPCA tried playing in assisting a China-based development company develop lands inside the sprawling Thundering Waters Forest in Niagara Falls, which plays host to provincially significant wetlands and a diversity of wildlife and other natural features.
Niagara At Large has already posted a news commentary on what the AG report has to say about the disturbing role the Conservation Authority has played in the Thundering Waters affair and you can find a link to that commentary below.
What I wish to conclude with here is the following.
For most of the Niagara Peninsula Conservation Authority’s history going back its founding in 1959, it had a proud history of protecting, enhancing and conserving what remain of the natural features in a large watershed that stretches from the eastern regions of Hamilton and Haldimand, through Niagara to the lower Great Lakes and Niagara River.
As a long-time environment reporter with The St. Catharines Standard before I moved on to other media outlets and this one, I to respect most of the staff and managers at the NPCA for the expertise and dedication they brought to their work. Like other reporters and members of the public, I also had no trouble called these people up any time to talk to them about the work they were doing. Often, I would be invited out to projects they were working on to see for myself.
All of that began to change within the last eight or so years when Niagara Falls regional councillor Bart Maves (a former MPP for the Mike Harris Tories) came on board as chair of the NPCA board, then Carmen D’Angelo, a former board member who also did some paid consultant work for the NPCA, was hired at its CAO before moving on to his current job as CAO for Niagara Region.
So much of what has gone wrong with the NPCA over the past seven or eight years, and especially over the last four years under a board dominated by politicians sitting on a Niagara regional council chaired by Al Caslin, has been well documented in Auditor General Bonnie Lysyk’s September 27th report titled; ‘Special Audit of the Niagara Peninsula Conservation Authority ‘. A link for the report is included below and I encourage you to read it.
From this long-time environment reporter’s point of view, what went wrong the most is that this important agency stopped becoming the strong, uncompromising voice for conservation and environmental agency we need in a Niagara that has already lost most of its wetlands and many of its other natural spaces to one form of development or another.
In a 21st century, when scientists around the world are warning about losses in biodiversity that could prove catastrophic for present and future generations, we desperately need that conservation back.
Fortunately, the upcoming October 22nd municipal elections offer us an opportunity to get that vital conservation voice back.
We can begin by voting out of office those municipal politicians who are now sitting on the NPCA’s board of directors are running for another four-year term in these elections
These politicians and board members we need to vote out include Fort Erie regional chair Sandy Annunziata, Pelham regional councillor Brian Baty, St. Catharines regional councillor Bruce Timms, Grimsby regional councillor Tony Quirk, West Lincoln Mayor Doug Joyner, Niagara-on-the-Lake Lord Mayor Patrick Darte, Niagara Falls Mayor Jim Diodatti and Welland Mayor Frank Campion.
We must also make sure we vote into municipal office politicians who vow to rebuild the NPCA as a true Conservation Authority and promise to appoint individuals to its board with expertise and a true passion for protecting and conserving our special natural places.
The opportunity to do that, on voting day this coming October 22nd, now rests in our hands.
To read the full Ontario Auditor General’s report on the NPCA, click on – http://www.auditor.on.ca/en/content/specialreports/specialreports/NPCA_en.pdf
To read a recent commentary posted on Niagara At Large on what the Auditor General’s report has to say about the NPCA and the Thundering Waters Forest in Niagara Falls, click on – https://niagaraatlarge.com/2018/09/28/niagara-has-a-conservation-authority-that-was-prepared-to-allow-wetland-destruction-in-thundering-waters-forest-ontario-auditor-generals-report/
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