Losing Touch: A scathing report from the Environmental Commissioner of Ontario

Image from Environmental Commissioner of Ontario.

Toronto – Ontario’s Environmental Commissioner says officials in the provincial government are defying the will of the Legislature and ignoring the public’s right to be involved in the development of environmental policy.

In Part I of his 2011/2012 Annual Report (pdf) released today, Gord Miller highlighted the government’s obligations under Ontario’s Environmental Bill of Rights, 1993, also known as the EBR. “The EBR is one of the most significant environmental laws of our time,” says Miller. “It gives Ontarians a toolkit they can use to make sure Ontario ministries are listening to their concerns and protecting their right to a healthy environment. But a number of ministries are frustrating the public’s right to know and be involved in environmental protection.”

Miller says a key tool in the EBR toolkit is the Environmental Registry. Ministries that are covered by the EBR are required to post any environmentally significant proposals on this searchable on-line database. The posting of a proposal notice guarantees the public at least 30 days to comment on the proposed government initiatives, notification of the decision, and an explanation of how their comments were considered in the final decision.

The Environmental Commissioner says a number of ministries are ignoring the requirements of the EBR and proceeding with far-reaching environmental plans, policies and programs without properly notifying and consulting the public.

The Ministry of Energy didn’t post a full proposal notice on the Environmental Registry when it announced its review of the Feed-in Tariff program for renewable energy. Instead, it only posted an “information notice”, which does not give the public the right to have their comments considered, or the right to see how their comments were reflected in the final decision. The Ministry of Natural Resources didn’t notify and consult the public on its strategic policy document, Our Sustainable Future: A Renewed Call to Action, even though it gives overall direction for all of the ministry’s core activities and programs for years to come.

In his report today, Ontario’s Environmental Commissioner singles out the Ministry of Natural Resources for special criticism. “Over the past few years, it has increasingly evaded its obligations under the EBR. I think the Ministry of Natural Resources should be classified as a ‘chronic offender’ for its repeated refusal to post important proposals on the Environmental Registry. The Legislature should be offended by the ministry’s conduct.”

Gord Miller says the flouting of the public’s rights extends beyond the refusal to use the Environmental Registry. Some important ministries still aren’t “prescribed” or covered by the Environmental Bill of Rights. For example, the Ministry of Infrastructure, which is in charge of legislation with clear environmental impacts like the Places to Grow Act, is still not prescribed.

Other ministries already subject to the EBR systematically deny every application from the public for a policy review or an investigation of suspected illegal activity. The Ministry of Northern Development and Mines and the Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing have in fact denied every application they have received since the Legislature gave the public these rights 18 years ago; the Ministry of Natural Resources has not undertaken a single application submitted in the last five years.

Moreover, four years after the Ontario Divisional Court ruled that ministries must consider their Statements of Environmental Values (SEVs) when making decisions on all instruments (e.g., permits, approvals, licences) that are prescribed under the EBR, the Ministry of Natural Resources and the Ministry of the Environment still are not fully complying with this important requirement under the EBR.

“I am astounded by the level of disregard and contempt being shown to the statutory requirements of the Environmental Bill of Rights,” says the Environmental Commissioner. “Senior members of the Ontario Public Service are ignoring their responsibility to support and implement the will of the Legislative Assembly.”