Twelve environmental groups are sounding the alarm on newly passed Ontario legislation that made sweeping changes to environmental laws without public consultation in the name of economic recovery during the pandemic.
Ontario officials have stated that Bill 197, COVID-19 Economic Recovery Act, 2020 modernizes the province’s 50-year-old environmental assessment system and instead focuses government efforts on higher-risk projects. While most public sector infrastructure projects require environmental assessments by default, Bill 197 gives full discretion to the provincial government about whether an assessment is required, and removes the opportunity for the public to call for a review.
A number of eco-action groups are lobbying the province for accountability over the bill’s covert changes, and Kingston-area MPP and environment critic for the opposition NDP, Ian Arthur has written to the provincial Auditor General to investigate Bill 197 for violating the Environmental Bill of Rights, which says the government must consult the public for 30 days when considering all new laws, regulations or policies that impact land, air, water and wildlife in Ontario.
“What they’re doing is potentially illegal,” Arthur said during question period at Queen’s Park earlier this month. “[…] It is the environment and the people of Ontario that are going to be hurt by these mistakes,” he added.
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Ontario Auditor General, Bonnie Lysyk has indicated that there are concerns over Bill 197’s process and said that she will table a report on the matter later this year.
An Ontario court previously found that Premier Doug Ford’s government ignored consultation laws when it cancelled the province’s cap-and-trade program without holding consultations in 2018.
Bill 197 received Royal Assent on July 21.
When Ford was asked about the Auditor General’s concerns about Bill 197 at a recent COVID-19 press briefing, he said: “I’m going to have to respectfully disagree.”
Ecojustice, an environmental protection group with a long record of fighting for wilderness and wildlife in the courts, has stated that it’s not just assessments of major projects that will be impacted by the new bill. “It also proposes terminating options for public appeals on environmental issues that were not addressed in a streamlined EA [environmental assessment],” writes Ecojustice lawyer Laura Bowman.
In a statement, Bowman warns that the same day Bill 197 was tabled, the Ford government introduced a slew of other proposals to exempt aspects of many major infrastructure projects. She created a list of links to the legislative exemptions and amendments, which include forestry management, the final phases of highway planning or highway expansions, construction of collector roads, removal of bike infrastructure, road widenings, projects in parks and conservation reserves, or major expansions to wastewater treatment plants. There are also changes to how assessments would be conducted for transit, mining, forestry, hydro, waterpower and other projects, Bowman found.
“The government’s actions demonstrate an unprecedented attempt to override public consultation on an omnibus bill that has far-reaching implications for the public’s involvement in environmental assessments and sustainable development,” Bowman said in a statement on the bill.
Under the lead of Ecojustice and the Canadian Law Association, 12 environmental organizations have written a letter to the province over Bill 197.
Earlier, in May, many of the organizations that signed the latest letter issued a warning that the provincial and federal governments may weaken or delay implementation of environmental laws under the climate of the COVID-19 pandemic.