“There will no longer be public reporting on how (Ontario) ministries implement and comply with the Environmental Bill of Rights.”
News from CATCH (Citizens at City Hall), a citizen’s watchdog group in Hamilton, Ontario
Posted January 2nd, 2019 on Niagara At Large
The Ford government’s forced silencing of the Environmental Commissioner of Ontario (ECO) will have major impacts in Hamilton as well as across the province. It appears likely to also seriously undermine environmental rights that Ontarians have had for a quarter century.
As part of an omnibus bill, the Progressive Conservative government is eliminating the commissioner as well as two other independent watchdogs who also report directly to the legislature, one that advocates for children and the other that protects French language services.
The Environmental Commissioner Dianne Saxe critiques government activities related to climate change, energy and a broad range of environmental matters.
“The impact on Hamilton is huge,” says Environment Hamilton’s executive director Lynda Lukasik. “Think about all the things happening here that require provincial permitting in some form, especially in the industrial core, and all the rights we have as Ontarians to comment on those kinds of decisions, whether it’s a new permit or amending an existing permit.”
A key function is oversight of the province’s Environmental Bill of Rights (EBR) which allows individuals to ask for investigations, appeal ministry decisions and have prior commenting rights on hundreds of government regulatory activities.
In the last year alone “ministries posted over 1,500 proposals and over 1,800 decisions on the Environmental Registry for policies, acts, regulations, licences, permits and other environmental approvals, and members of the public submitted thousands of comments”, notes the most recent Commissioner’s report.
“A big part of what we do at Environment Hamilton is we track all of those permit applications and applications to amend those permits and we work on engaging community in commenting on them as well,” explains Lukasik. “And we’ve found we always make a difference when we take the time to do that.”
She points to the use of the EBR application for review provisions to shutdown the heavily polluting SWARU incinerator in the late 1990s which “led the city to fast track efforts to start organics diversion and to ramp up recycling efforts.”
Environment Hamilton has twice successfully overturned ministry of environment decisions, and has also caught an industrial facility operating illegally without required provincial permits. The group calls itself Hamilton’s environmental watchdog and is currently fundraising to enhance that work.
Ministries must consider public comments and explain how they were taken into account in decision making. For example, two recent proposals related to water extraction and bottling each drew over seven thousand comments.
Under the Ford government’s legislation the oversight of the EBR will be given to the ministry that gets by far the most public comments.
“Responsibility for public education about the EBR will fall to the Minister of Environment, creating a clear conflict of interest, since that ministry has been the subject of the majority of citizen requests for action under the EBR,” argues the Canadian Environmental Law Association (CELA) which is leading a province-wide campaign against the legislation.
“The Environmental Commissioner reports on cases when ministries fail outright to consult the public; when ministries fail to give the public enough information or enough time to provide meaningful comment; when ministries fail to consider public comments, and other problems with consultation, as they arise,” explains a CELA review of the legislation.
“There will no longer be public reporting on how ministries implement and comply with the Environmental Bill of Rights.”
The provincial government didn’t provide specific reasons for shutting down the watchdogs, although the legislation was tabled in conjunction with an economic update that focused on reducing the deficit.
CELA notes that the ECO “has cost Ontarians about thirty cents per person, per year.”
CATCH (Citizens at City Hall) updates use transcripts and/or public documents to highlight information about Hamilton civic affairs that is not generally available in the mass media. Detailed reports of City Hall meetings can be reviewed at hamiltoncatch.org .
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