Environmental groups are raising concerns after the Ontario government changed its rules during the COVID-19 pandemic to allow it to approve some projects without public consultation.
Earlier this month, the province posted a bulletin on its website saying it was temporarily changing a regulation to exempt proposals from part of the oversight process required under the Environmental Bill of Rights.
With that change, which is in effect for 30 days after the province’s COVID-19 state of emergency ends, proposals don’t have to be posted online to the Environmental Registry for a “30-day comment period.”
The provincial environment minister has told CBC News the exemption is intended only for projects related to the pandemic that need to built quickly — which might include medical facilities to battle COVID-19, for example.
But the bulletin itself doesn’t specify whether the change is just for pandemic-related proposals, leaving environmental groups worried projects unrelated to the novel coronavirus could be given the green light without proper oversight.
“The public won’t know when significant decisions may be made that have an environmental impact,” said Kerri Blaise, the northern services counsel for the Canadian Environmental Law Association (CELA).
The bulletin also says “decision-makers will no longer be required to consider” what are known as Statements of Environmental Values — which outline ministries’ commitments to the environment and hold them accountable for ensuring the environment is considered in their decisions.
Blaise’s organization argues if the changes are just related to COVID-19, the province could have exercised its authority under an emergency provision that could exempt specific proposals related to the pandemic from public consultation.
But Ontario’s Minister of Environment, Conservation and Parks Jeff Yurek said that section of the legislation isn’t broad enough to encompass all the issues.
“It wouldn’t have improved the flow of products and goods in the province,” he said.
The environment ministry said any proposal unrelated to the pandemic is expected to adhere to the previous rules, which include being posted online to the Environmental Registry with a 30-day consultation period.
The ministry said only pandemic-related proposals are exempt from public consultation, although an information notice must be posted online.
Groups want new regulations reversed
The CELA, along with more than 40 other organizations, wrote a letter to the province late last week asking for the new regulations to be repealed.
Blaise said the group understands emergency measures must be taken during the pandemic, but said as it’s written now, the regulations are too far-reaching.
“This could be a whole range of activity,” Blaise said. “If a mining company is seeking to renew a 10-year permit to take millions of litres of water from a lake on a daily basis, that wouldn’t be posted.”
The non-profit environmental organization Wilderness Committee said its main concern is the government allowing proposals to go through that are unrelated to the pandemic without the public knowing about them.
“The [Environmental Registry] is the main way for organizations like ourselves to be notified of these projects and to be able to comment on them,” said Katie Krelove, the organization’s Ontario campaigner.
“Suspension of transparency is definitely worrisome.”
The Ontario New Democratic Party’s energy and climate change critic Peter Tabuns said the previous rules were in place for a reason.
“If you’re exempting the government from those rules, there’s always the potential that someone is going to act in a way that is not responsible,” he said, noting he’s afraid someone may take advantage of people being distracted by the pandemic.
“The government can act completely undercover,” he said.
‘We aren’t going to hide things’
But Yurek said the new regulations have nothing to do with allowing changes without oversight.
“My ministry is not going to be pushing anything through that has nothing to do with COVID-19 and other ministries have been directed to follow current processes for reasons outside of COVD-19,” he said in an interview with CBC News.
He said ministries are being told to continue posting proposals that are unrelated to COVID-19 to the Environmental Registry and allow the 30-day consultation period.
“We want to be as transparent as possible through this pandemic,” Yurek said.
“We aren’t going to hide things.”
He said the decision to suspend part of the rules was done to ensure the government could be “nimble” when dealing with the pandemic.
“We’ve made the pragmatic approach to ensure that we’re able to protect the health and safety of Ontarians, get goods moving in this province and services, without hurting the environment,” he said.