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The province of Alberta is joining a lawsuit against Ottawa's plan to ban single-use plastic.JONATHAN HAYWARD/The Canadian Press

Alberta is challenging Ottawa’s decision to label plastics as toxic, accusing the federal government of overstepping its jurisdiction and threatening the province’s economic interests.

The province has filed notice with the Federal Court of Canada that it will intervene in a legal challenge of Ottawa’s move last May to list plastics as a toxic substance under the Canadian Environmental Protection Act (CEPA). That court challenge is being led by the Responsible Plastic Use Coalition, an industry group comprising more than 30 plastic manufacturers and petrochemical giants, including Dow, Nova Chemicals and Imperial Oil.

The CEPA defines a substance as “toxic” if it can have “immediate or long-term harmful effect on the environment or its biological diversity.” The designation is required for the government to ban substances believed to be harmful to human, animal or environmental health and was key to Ottawa’s ban of several single-use plastic items.

The coalition argues the government doesn’t have real evidence that plastics are toxic – a point with which Alberta Premier Jason Kenney agreed Thursday, saying it’s wrong to lump plastic in with toxic substances.

“While the industry is investing massively in becoming more environmentally responsible, Ottawa – for, I think, political reasons – decided to say that plastics have the same risk as toxins like arsenic, which is clearly unscientific,” he told reporters in Calgary.

Federal government puts final motions in place to ban some single-use plastics

Mr. Kenney also accused the federal government of trying to “pull a fast one” by exerting its constitutional authority to legislate on criminal matters “to effectively engage in what is normally provincial environmental regulatory authority.” In essence, he said, listing plastic as toxic is “an environmental regulation dressed up as a criminal law matter, and that’s the core of our argument.”

“The federal government has once again drifted out of its lane, straying into constitutional territory it has no legal right to be in.”

Federal Minister of Environment and Climate Change Steven Guilbeault said in a statement Thursday that he’s confident the courts will uphold his government’s ban on single-use plastics.

“Canadians are demanding government act to address the plastic pollution crisis. But instead of taking positive action for cleaner air and water, it’s disappointing to see Conservative politicians once again running to the courts to oppose our efforts to keep plastics out of our landfills and environment,” he said.

Under regulations Mr. Guilbeault finalized in June, the ban will be phased in starting this December. It will end the manufacture and import of plastic takeout containers, stir sticks, shopping bags, cutlery and most straws in June, 2023. Their sale will be banned the following June, and exports have to end in December, 2025.

The coalition has asked the court to put the brakes on implementing any part of the ban until a decision can be made on its legality.

Mr. Kenney said the uncertainty surrounding the ban has already hurt Alberta’s growing petrochemical industry, with an internal government analysis estimating that $30-billion of investment is at risk.

“By making unilateral decisions to label plastic items as toxic, the federal government has demonstrated that it is not interested in an evidence-based approach to the subject, like so many others that relate to Alberta’s economic interests,” he said.

He added that he has written to fellow premiers to ask them to join Alberta in its court challenge and raised the topic at the Council of the Federation in July.

“There is some interest, I think, from some other provinces,” he said.

“Quebec has a large petrochemical industry, for example, as does Ontario. They’re following this closely. We hope that they will join us.”

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