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In much of Ontario on Friday, citizens could enjoy patio beers or get long-awaited haircuts as COVID-19 restrictions lifted.
But a broad suspension of environmental rights — which the province's Progressive Conservative government said it needed to respond to the COVID-19 emergency — remains in place even as the crisis caused by the virus appears to subside.
“If people can congregate on patios while abiding by physical-distance guidelines, surely, they can be consulted on environmental measures that affect their community,” Ontario Green party Leader Mike Schreiner said in an interview.
In April, the government suspended a key portion of Ontario’s Environmental Bill of Rights, allowing it to push forward projects or laws that could significantly impact the environment without consulting or notifying the public. The regulation doesn’t specify that those decisions must be related to COVID-19.
At the time, the government said environmental protections could slow down its response to the pandemic. The suspension expires 30 days after Ontario’s current state of emergency ends — for now, that’s June 30, but the government has the ability to extend it further.
Andrew Buttigieg, a spokesman for Ontario Environment Minister Jeff Yurek, didn’t respond to questions about when the government would restore the environmental protections or what projects related to COVID-19 it had used the suspension to expedite.
But Yurek’s previous statements still stand, Buttigieg said — the government will remain transparent and consult the public on changes not related to COVID-19, he said. The government will have more news next week, he added.
This week, the government used the suspension to allow petroleum refineries in Ontario to temporarily reduce the number of surveys to detect leaky machinery. For 2020, companies may now conduct two checks instead of the usual three due to the effects of COVID-19, a change that was posted to Ontario’s Environmental Registry, but implemented without consulting the public.
Petrochemical leaks and spills are common in Sarnia’s Chemical Valley, a collaborative investigation involving Canada's National Observer found in 2017.
The government previously used the suspension of environmental protections to delay a deadline for industry to report greenhouse gas emissions. (Yurek has previously said change was to align Ontario’s deadline with a similar delay on the federal level.)
Though these changes appear small, they’re starting to add up, said Robert Wright, a staff lawyer at the non-profit Ecojustice and former vice-chair of Ontario’s Environmental Review Tribunal.
“If people can congregate on patios while abiding by physical distance guidelines, surely they can be consulted on environmental measures that affect their community,” said Ontario Green Party Leader Mike Schreiner. #onpoli
“My concern might be that some of these changes will become embedded,” he said.
NDP question why environmental consultations can’t be done virtually
The Environmental Bill of Rights included a section allowing the government to skip public consultation if a public health emergency demands it. Buttigieg has said the government didn’t use that section because determining which measures would qualify could slow down COVID-19 response further.
“There were robust fail-safes built into the Environmental Bill of Rights,” Ontario NDP environment critic Ian Arthur said Friday. “I don't think (the suspension) is necessary.”
Arthur also pointed out that the province is continuing to consult the public digitally on other matters — the finance committee, for example, has held virtual hearings. The fact that the government hasn’t done the same for environmental changes is indicative of its priorities, he added.
“There are ways that we can conduct consultations safely through the use of technology,” he said. “Why that isn’t being employed in this instance is absolutely beyond me.”
Since Doug Ford became premier in 2018, Ontario has cancelled 227 clean-energy projects, wound down conservation programs, weakened endangered-species protections and taken away powers from the province’s environmental commissioner, who is meant to hold the government accountable.
Last month, a court overturned Yurek’s decision to cancel a partially built wind farm, with judges finding the minister was “not reasonable” and did not “meet the requirements of transparency, justification and intelligibility.”
The Ford government has a record of not being trustworthy when it comes to the environment, Schreiner said.
“Given that history, we need the government to be transparent,” he said.
Meanwhile, Ecojustice has filed an application for Yurek to review the decision to suspend environmental protections. Wright said Yurek has until July 13 to respond, and to decide whether he’ll revisit the issue.