By Aaron Freeman
With his report on a wide range of high-profile environmental issues, environmental commissioner Ron Thompson regained some of the lustre that his office lost when his predecessor Johanne Gélinas was fired a year ago. The report speaks confidently about the government’s failures, and should prompt some serious head-scratching about what might motivate the government to improve its environmental record.
The government’s best performance was in toxic chemicals management. >From a 69-substance list of priority chemicals created in 1989 and 1995, it has assessed most for their toxic effects, as required under the Canadian Environmental Protection Act. Long overdue assessments for three of the substances are not yet completed, even though Health Canada and Environment Canada have evidence that two of them are toxic. These chemicals, aniline, and chlorinated paraffins, are used widely in Canada. Yet according to the report, “After 18 years of risk assessment work and recurring evidence of toxicity, the federal government has not added aniline and chlorinated paraffins to the List of Toxic Substances.”
Although this neglect is glaring, the government deserves kudos for assessing the other chemicals, and going beyond their legal duties by establishing an action plan for a larger list of 4,300 chemicals. The program allows for serious delays—it will take until 2020 to complete the assessment phase, and action on the first batch of chemicals may not take place until 2012. However, it is the first comprehensive regulatory plan for toxic chemicals in well over a decade.
The government has also improved management of pesticides, and has begun a program to clean up federal contaminated sites, although the latter was only initiated once an earlier report by the auditor general mandated that these sites had to be remediated, or else be counted as liabilities on the government’s books. (Who knew that obscure accounting requirements could help save the environment?)
But in some areas, even clear legal obligations were not enough to convince the government to take appropriate action. “The government has broken its own law,” Thompson notes when discussing his audit of the government’s endangered species program.
Under the Species At Risk Act, the government is required to identify the critical habitat of endangered plants and animals, and to draft recovery strategies. Even after repeatedly being sued by environmental organizations, the government has failed to carry out these duties. In the most recent lawsuit, members of the government’s own recovery team are testifying that the government ignored their advice on where the species was located.
On other wildlife issues, the government’s performance has been equally abysmal. Management plans for national wildlife areas and migratory bird sanctuaries are “seriously out of date” and the government’s own analysis shows that these sites are not given the resources to address even the most urgent problems.
And if you think this is because the government is all about business, even when there is an economic imperative, the government has failed on environmental protection. Invasive species, like the zebra mussel and Asian carp, are causing serious harm to the Great Lakes ecosystem. But their damage to local fisheries and water infrastructure is also costing municipalities and businesses billions of dollars. Yet according to the report, regulations developed by the Department of Fisheries and Oceans are not being enforced. “The federal government is not yet in a position to prevent, control, or eradicate invasive species that pose the greatest threat to Canada’s aquatic ecosystems and economy,” the report states.
The government was given the commissioner’s report in October, months before the federal budget. It knew that it would be taking a hit on these issues, yet while the budget doled out generous taxpayer subsidies for the coal and nuclear industries, money to address the most pressing environmental problems was scarce.
Even for Throne Speech priorities, such as investing in clean water infrastructure in the Great Lakes and other waterways, there was no money to back up the government’s promises. Twenty years after committing to clean up the 17 most polluted areas around the Great Lakes, Thompson notes the government has restored only two of the sites.
Mismanagement of the Great Lakes file is so severe that action plans barely exist for the remaining sites, criteria for clean up have yet to even be defined, and the government “has not been reporting progress every two years on implementing action plans … as required by the [Canada-U.S.] Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement.”
Environment Canada has accepted the commissioner’s Great Lakes recommendations, but offers the excuse that their ability to respond is dependant on “the commitment of partners,” such as the Ontario government. However, other levels of government understand that if there is no federal money placed on the table to address this issue, there is no conversation worth having. This is well-understood south of the border, where federal leadership has led to funding commitments of $10-billion to $20-billion for Great Lakes clean up. On the Canadian side, Thompson says, “the federal government hasn’t exercised the kind of leadership that’s needed.”
In response to the report, the government made new promises to clean up Canada’s environment. But as the commissioner notes, “The government continues to say it is committed to resolving these problems, but it has failed to do so.”
Aaron Freeman is the policy director for Environmental Defence. The opinions expressed are his own.