The Ford government is failing to obey environmental laws, often doing so while skirting transparency rules, Ontario’s auditor general found in a scathing series of reports Wednesday.
The province is not collecting enough data to know whether it’s actually conserving protected lands and endangered species, the reports say.
Ontario has opened up protected wilderness areas for resource extraction, and two-thirds of the land in Algonquin Provincial Park can’t be considered “protected” due to commercial logging.
The province also risks missing its 2030 emissions reduction target, in part because it isn’t reducing its use of fossil fuels.
Meanwhile, the Environment Ministry often does not comply with key environmental protection and public disclosure requirements, and Ontario Parks lacks the staff it needs to do its work properly, the reports found.
"Any time there’s a law, the law needs to be followed," auditor general Bonnie Lysyk said Wednesday, calling the government's failure to do so "concerning."
The auditor general is a non-partisan independent watchdog tasked with holding the government of the day accountable for financial responsibility and public transparency.
Ontario used to have a separate independent office responsible for environmental oversight, but the Progressive Conservative government weakened the role’s powers and folded its responsibilities into the Office of the Auditor General in 2019. Now, the environmental watchdog role rests with Lysyk, assistant auditor general and environmental commissioner Jerry DeMarco and their team of experts and auditors.
The reports, which were tabled in the Ontario legislature Wednesday morning, total more than 300 pages. In response, Environment Minister Jeff Yurek thanked Lysyk and said his ministry will review her recommendations. Though he said he was "proud" of his ministry's work, he also blamed some of the issues Lysyk flagged on COVID-19, and on previous governments.
The Ford government is failing to obey environmental laws, often doing so while skirting transparency rules, Ontario’s auditor general has found in a scathing series of reports. #onpoli
“We'll keep working to protect the environment and ensure that we have a strong economy, and keep Ontarians safe and get through this pandemic and move forward as a province,” he said.
Opposition groups and environmental advocates condemned the report's findings.
“Frankly, it's a very disturbing picture that’s been painted,” Ontario NDP climate critic Peter Tabuns said.
Ontario Green Party Leader Mike Schreiner said the government's actions are a threat not just to the environment, but also for the province's safety and economy.
"I believe we have a moral obligation to our children to leave them a viable planet," he said.
Ontario Parks understaffed, while government lacks key data
The first of the auditor general’s reports examined how well the province is taking care of protected lands, finding that Ontario is lagging in key areas. Issues have primarily been caused by a lack of “sufficient” staff, Lysyk and DeMarco wrote.
Ontario Parks — a branch of the Environment Ministry that oversees provincial parks and conservation reserves — has just seven ecologists in its staff of 254, the report found.
The agency is also sorely lacking park planners. Just 12 people at the agency have that responsibility, with each one handling between 19 and 97 provincial parks and conservation reserves. (Each park planner had between four and 29 park plans that were in need of replacement, the audit found.)
“The lack of dedicated staff specifically tasked with and accountable for expanding the protected areas network has contributed to Ontario’s slow progress in increasing its protected area network,” the report said.
The report also detailed a laundry list of other failures.
"What we’re seeing here are systemic issues that go back a long way," Lysyk said.
Ontario allows commercial logging in Algonquin Provincial Park, the crown jewel of the province’s park system, and has since the park was established in 1893 — even though the practice is banned in all other provincial parks. Because of the logging, only one-third of the land in the park can actually be classified as “protected,” the report said, calling the activity “incompatible with biodiversity conservation.”
In other cases, protected lands were inappropriately opened up for resource extraction, even though it was prohibited by provincial law.
The Derby Lake Nature Reserve Wilderness Area, near Kenora, and Eighteen Mile Island Wilderness Area, near Sudbury, were both left open for commercial logging despite the practice being illegal under the Wilderness Areas Act.
“Logging operations by a private company were scheduled to take place within Derby Lake Wilderness Area in 2020 until we brought it to the ministry’s attention and the ministry cancelled the planned logging,” the report said.
Sankey Township Nature Reserve Wilderness Area, near Hearst, had also been opened to claim staking, but the government closed that process when the auditor general flagged it, the report said.
The Environment Ministry doesn’t have any procedures laid out for monitoring wilderness areas to ensure no prohibited activities are happening, the auditor general found.
The ministry is also failing to collect data on species at risk and invasive species, information used to monitor whether hunting, fishing and trapping are sustainable in certain parks and reserves.
The lack of data means the province does not know whether it’s meeting its legal obligations to conserve nature, the report found.
Meanwhile, many of the plans governing protected lands in the province didn’t include measures to help those species recover, even though those areas are home to three-quarters of our species at risk, the report concluded. One-third of the plans reviewed by the auditor general didn’t include any measures to prevent harm caused by invasive species, either.
On one visit to a provincial park — Sharbot Lake, a picturesque spot for camping and boating in eastern Ontario — the auditor general spotted gypsy moths, an invasive species that weakens trees. The plan for the park, written in 1988, said park staff used pesticides to combat the pest. But that hadn’t actually happened since 2000.
“We found that the Environment Ministry does not collect sufficient and necessary information,” the report said.
The province also has no overall plan for protecting more land — something that carries a particular level of risk in population-dense southern Ontario, where only 0.6 per cent of land is protected and less than two per cent of wetlands remain in some areas, the report noted.
“If coverage does not increase, species and their habitat, as well as the benefits we derive from nature, will continue to be lost,” the report said.
It’s also crucial for the Far North, where only 10.4 per cent of land is protected, falling short of the province’s target of 50 per cent. Though six First Nations have expressed interest in creating Indigenous Protected and Conserved Areas, the Ministry of Natural Resources has not followed up, the report found.
“Biodiversity loss has been ranked as a top-five risk — by likelihood and impact — to economies over the next decade,” the report said.
“Because protected areas in Ontario support thousands of jobs, create millions of dollars in labour income, generate millions of dollars in tax revenue, and contribute hundreds of millions of dollars to the province’s gross domestic product, Ontario needs an effective protected area network to ensure that the positive economic impacts attributed to protected areas continue.”
Province’s failure to follow rules ‘risked undermining public confidence’
In Ontario, the Environmental Bill of Rights gives the public the right to participate in environmental decision-making and hold the government to account. It requires the government to consider green values, and to notify and consult the public before taking certain actions.
One of the reports released Wednesday assessed how well the government is following rules laid out in that legislation.
Lysyk raised concerns about the Ford government’s level of compliance with the Environmental Bill of Rights in 2019, pointing to the Progressive Conservatives’ move to axe Ontario’s cap-and-trade system.
Though some government ministries “had taken action” to respond to concerns raised in 2019, the government’s overall compliance with the Environmental Bill of Rights has actually worsened, the auditor general found. The one with the "worst track record" was the Ministry of the Environment itself, which failed nine of 16 categories audited in the report, Lysyk said.
"We would have expected (the Environment Ministry) to lead by example," Lysyk added. "Instead it continues to not comply with the legislation.”
Ministries failed to fully meet the criteria of the law in 38 per cent of cases in 2019-20, as opposed to 35 per cent the year before, the report said. The Environment Ministry also failed to lead by example, the report found, with 75 per cent of the auditor general’s review criteria either fully or partially unmet.
“The ministries have an obligation to embrace this legislation and include Ontarians in the decision-making process,” said Lysyk in a statement. “The (Environmental Bill of Rights) is critical in ensuring meaningful public participation and better decisions affecting the environment.”
In 2019, the government failed to give the public “sufficient information and time” before making significant changes that weakened endangered species protections, the report found. The same year, it failed to explain how six forestry-related proposals could further undermine protections for species at risk.
The public wasn’t notified about 42 of the environmentally significant decisions examined by the auditor general until two weeks after they were made, the report found. In cases where public notices did go out, they didn’t actually describe the environmental impact of the proposals.
In other cases, the government has moved to limit public disclosure of environment-related changes, declining to make agencies that deal with environmental matters subject to the bill of rights and reducing the number of notices that are posted on the province’s public Environmental Registry. At times, Lysyk said, the government should have given the public more than the minimum amount of time to respond to certain, complex proposals.
The government seems to have a "little bit of an attitude" and believe that it only needs to do the bare minimum, Lysyk told reporters Wednesday.
"She's asking us to do more, and we take that to heart, and we'll take a look at that," Yurek said in response.
The auditor general also flagged the province’s move to temporarily exempt itself from portions of the Environmental Bill of Rights this spring amid COVID-19, allowing the government to make environmental changes without notifying or consulting the public, and without facing appeals.
The exemption didn’t specify that it had to be used for pandemic response. That meant it “effectively cancelled” Ontarians’ ability to weigh in on environmental decision-making, an outcome that “could have been avoided” had the province simply narrowed the scope, the report said.
“While this was understandable under the circumstances, only nine of 276 exempted proposals during that period were urgent and related to COVID-19,” the report found.
The exemption meant the public also lost the right to appeal 197 government decisions on environmentally significant permits and approvals that were not related to COVID-19, even if the province made its final choice after the exemption ended, the report found.
Those permits and approvals would, for example, “allow industrial facilities to discharge pollutants to the air and water in Ontario communities,” the report said.
“The effects on the public of the Environment Ministry’s broad temporary exemption regulation may be felt well into the future.”
The auditor general recommended the ministry repost those proposals for public comments now, but in a response printed in the report, the government declined.
In the report, Lysyk recommended that the government motivate ministries to follow the Environmental Bill of Rights by making it part of performance reviews for some high-level bureaucrats, a suggestion the government accepted.
The Environmental Bill of Rights doesn't contain any penalties for governments that disobey its rules. When asked if she would recommend the government write some in, Lysyk said the most she could do is suggest the government dock ministers' pay for not following the rules. (Similar provisions already exist in other legislation.) Otherwise, she said, it's up to voters to decide to punish the government.
“It’s the elections that determine whether the public likes government choices," she said.
The report also sounded alarms about the government’s move to weaken the public’s ability to participate in the environmental assessment process, a change made over the summer in the omnibus Bill 197. The government did not consult the public before passing the bill.
As previously reported by Canada’s National Observer, the auditor general wrote to the premier’s office before Bill 197 passed warning that the government was legally required to conduct public consultations under the requirements set out in the Environmental Bill of Rights. The government passed the bill anyway, and included a measure that would retroactively exempt the province from that requirement.
The auditor general also recommended the government hold off on implementing environmentally significant portions of Bill 197 until it could hold consultations, the report said. Again, the government declined.
“Not providing an opportunity for the public to comment on environmentally significant proposals can undermine public confidence in government transparency and decision-making.”
One change in Bill 197 took away the public’s right to ask for a full review of certain projects, a measure known as a “bump-up request.”
“As a result (of the change), bump-up requests related to 19 projects were terminated, including proposals to: build a new road through a mature Carolinian woodlot in the Greenbelt; construct municipal infrastructure through an area containing contaminated soil and groundwater; develop a wastewater treatment system that could affect fish and water resources; and rehabilitate mine tailings contaminating a nearby lake,” the report said.
Reports also highlighted carbon emissions and lack of environmental targets
The package of reports released Wednesday also included a look at Ontario’s greenhouse gas emissions from buildings, and an assessment of its environmental goal-setting.
“Our audit found the province risks missing its 2030 emission-reduction target, in part because climate change and the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions is not yet a cross-government priority,” said Lysyk in a news release.
“We found there is not enough of a focus on reducing fossil fuel use or greenhouse gas emissions in Ontario’s buildings sector at the moment.”
Lysyk said she suggests the government rewrite its climate plan to be "somewhat practical." In response, Yurek said the government will unveil a new version of that plan in the coming weeks.
The environment, natural resources and agriculture ministries also need better processes to ensure they are able to monitor issues like biodiversity, species at risk, protected lands and the health of agricultural soil, the report found.
While the Environment Ministry is adequately monitoring air and water, many other programs are lacking standardized protocols that would ensure data is collected consistently and properly, the report found.
“The province spends a lot of time, energy and tax dollars collecting huge amounts of environmental data,” Lysyk said in a statement.
“This data is critical to knowing whether the environment is getting better or worse, and whether environmental goals are being met. However, not tracking it properly hinders the ministries’ and public’s ability to gauge progress.”