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Ontario ignoring public's rights to environmental consultation, public info: audit

The Canadian Press · Posted: Nov 22, 2021 8:07 AM ET | Last Updated: November 22

A new report from Bonnie Lysyk, auditor general of Ontario, says the province's Environment Ministry has failed to show leadership on the Environmental Bill of Rights and some other ministries don't have formal procedures for following it. (Frank Gunn/Canadian Press)


The Ontario government has ignored the public's right to consultation on environmentally significant decisions, according to a new set of environmental audits that highlight transparency issues.


The auditor general's annual report on the environment found the Ministry of the Environment and several others "deliberately avoided" consulting the public on such decisions, though they are legally obligated to do so.


Four ministries made environmentally significant decisions over the last year without the required consultation, including Natural Resources and Municipal Affairs, and seven ministries took too long to provide notice of environmentally significant decisions in third of cases reviewed by the auditor general's office.


Even when information is made public, ministries didn't always provide all the information people need to give informed feedback, the audit found.


Under the Environmental Bill of Rights, Ontarians have an enshrined right to public information and consultation on decisions that may impact the environment, similar to French-language and employment rights.


But the audit said the Environment Ministry has failed to show leadership on that law, and some other ministries don't have formal procedures for following it.


The audit found some changes were made by ministries that don't have to follow Environmental Bill of Rights and in other cases environmentally significant changes were made to laws that aren't covered by it.


As an example, the audit pointed to changes made to the Conservation Authorities Act that happened without consultation because they were included in a budget bill.


In another case, the public wasn't consulted on the amalgamation of several tribunals that deal with mining, planning and environmental protection because the Ministry of the Attorney General, which isn't prescribed under the Environmental Bill of Rights, made the changes.


The report also flagged the increase in the municipal affairs minister's powers to issue Minister's Zoning Orders — which can bypass consultations for development projects — as a violation of the Environmental Bill of Rights.


It also found the Environment Ministry has not met its obligations to educate residents about their environmental rights.


Lack of transparency was also highlighted in other environmental audits, one of which found the province is not providing timely, comprehensive reports on the state of the environment or progress on its environmental goals.


Another audit flagged a lack of timely and comprehensive disclosure about the quantity and harm of hazardous spills. That audit also recommended the Environment Ministry strengthen its compliance and enforcement protocols on polluters.


The audit on spills found that over 73,000 hazardous spills were reported in the province over the last decade, but the ministry only attempted to recover response costs three times, and in those cases the government only pursued half of the costs.


A probe of 30 spills where the government didn't pursue costs estimated the response cost to taxpayers at $4.5 million.


Another audit found the government has not taken enough action on diverting business and industrial waste, which threatens to keep the province from meeting its targets in that area. It leaves questions about "where to put all this waste and how to pay for it," according to auditor general Bonnie Lysyk.


That audit found 15 per cent of waste from businesses and institutions is diverted, compared with 50 per cent of residential waste, because many businesses and institutions are not required to recycle.


The Environment Ministry was dinged in another audit for failing to protect species at risk by essentially approving all permit applications that would harm species at risk. That audit found such permits have increased by 6,000 per cent since 2009.

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