The Liberals are again pushing for changes to Canada's cornerstone environmental law, as Environment Minister Steven Guilbeault announced Wednesday that a bill seeking to update the legislation was introduced in the Senate.

This is not the first time the federal government has tried to amend the Canadian Environmental Protection Act (CEPA). The Liberals originally tabled a bill to strengthen the law last spring, but it died on the order paper when the federal election was called. The new bill uses the same language but was introduced to the Senate.

CEPA regulates toxic substances, greenhouse gases and other pollution to protect environmental and human health and was first introduced in 1988.

The proposed changes include requiring the government to study the cumulative health impacts of exposure to chemicals, identify and study vulnerable populations exposed to pollutants and acknowledge the right to a healthy environment, among other things.

“Our government is reintroducing this bill, with the same wording as before, because Canadians know the urgency,” Guilbeault said at the announcement. “We need to give this bill the best chance to get passed, and we are responding to that urgency by introducing the bill to the Senate first because it is the best way to get it through a very busy legislative agenda.”

The proposed changes are a starting point, but many environmental organizations and advocates wanted the government to reintroduce the bill with amendments that address some concerning language, said Elaine MacDonald, program director of healthy communities for Ecojustice.

For example, the bill says a right to a healthy environment will be balanced with relevant social, scientific and economic factors.

“This is the first piece of legislation in Canada that's going to recognize the right to a healthy environment, and the government needs to get it right, and we are concerned that this language undermines that,” said MacDonald.

Costly cleanups of chemicals are just one economic consideration she says could compromise this right.

Joseph Castrilli, a lawyer with the Canadian Environmental Law Association, said he “wasn't surprised” the government opted to keep the same language and take advantage of the Senate's less-packed agenda rather than introduce it in the House.

The Liberals introduced a bill proposing changes to Canada's cornerstone environmental law, @s_guilbeault announced Wednesday. The bill uses the same language as one introduced before the election and enviro groups still want some changes. #cdnpoli

“I'm hopeful that the government of Canada plans on introducing a robust package of amendments … before the bill eventually passes in the House of Commons,” said Castrilli.

One change he’d like to see is for it to make pollution prevention plans mandatory for all Schedule 1 toxic substances, which include asbestos, lead, mercury, methane and other gases.

Over 20 years after CEPA’s introduction, “only 25 of the 150 substances in Schedule 1 have a pollution prevention plan,” said Castrilli. “At that rate, we're not going to see a pollution prevention plan for all 150 substances on the list until the year 2100. We’ve got to go faster than that.”

Laurel Collins, the NDP’s environment critic, expressed doubt about the text of the bill in a statement, saying it has “significant loopholes and weaknesses that are of serious concern.”

“We are concerned that this bill will allow government to make politically motivated decisions that override the scientific evidence when it comes to dangerous substances,” Collins' statement reads.

Although Castrilli and MacDonald hoped the government would address some of their concerns before retabling the bill, they are glad the ball is rolling. MacDonald said the next step is to familiarize senators with the changes she wants to see.

“We thought about the possibility of making some changes before introducing the bill, but we are a minority government. Time is not on our side,” said Guilbeault.

He said the government is “very happy to entertain proposed changes” including concerns about the right to a healthy environment being undermined by economic factors.

“Let's have those discussions and let's see how we can make this bill the best possible bill it can be,” said Guilbeault.

Six environmental groups are calling on Parliament to prioritize the bill and adopt amendments to ensure there are no loopholes for high-risk substances to remain a threat to the public, that there are no delays in assessing the risk of dangerous chemicals and that the language saying the right to a healthy environment must be balanced with economic factors is removed.

In the same press release, the environmental groups asked the House Standing Committee on Environment and Sustainable Development to “initiate an early consideration of the bill while the Senate debates and votes on this legislation” to speed the process up.

If Elizabeth May’s private member’s bill to address environmental racism and require the government to collect data on links between environmental hazards, race, socioeconomic status and health becomes law, it would fill an important gap left by CEPA, which does not require that level of data collection but could certainly benefit from the information, said MacDonald.

Natasha Bulowski / Local Journalism Initiative / Canada’s National Observer

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Hopefully this will set the legal foundation for banning single-use plastics, and regulating toxic chemicals in end of life lithium batteries. Critically important for protecting our marine biodiversity and ecosystems.