Ontario’s Ministry of the Environment automatically approves permits for developments expected to harm at-risk species, the province’s Auditor-General says in a series of reports that also chastise the government for failing to recoup millions in costs for investigating toxic spills, and for breaking its own law on public consultations.
In an annual batch of environmental reports tabled on Monday, Auditor-General Bonnie Lysyk said the province is failing to protect wildlife from developers and resource industries. The Environment Ministry, she added, is “essentially facilitating development rather than protecting species at risk.”
Since 2009, the first full year Ontario’s Endangered Species Act was in force, the annual number of approvals for projects that harm species at risk has risen from 13 to more than 800, the audit says. While the projects are approved with conditions, the government has never completely turned down a permit because of the harm it would do to an at-risk species. The number of species at risk has increased 22 per cent over the same time period.
“We believe that the public would expect a ministry named the Ministry of the Environment to take the lead and be pro-active in ensuring that Ontario’s environment is protected for future generations,” Ms. Lysyk told reporters. “However, our work indicated that there are many areas where this is not the case.”
The auditor’s report shows that the number of “approvals to impact” at-risk species had risen rapidly under the previous Liberal government, hitting 802 in 2017. In 2019, under the current government, 972 such permits were issued. Another 827 were issued last year.
The audit also says the ministry’s species-at-risk advisory committee “is now dominated by industry representatives.”
Environment Minister David Piccini defended his government’s record. He told reporters that Ontario is the only province in Canada that is “anywhere close” to meeting its 2030 emissions reduction targets. But Ms. Lysyk has previously warned that the province is unlikely to hit those targets. In a follow-up report issued Monday, she said Ontario’s own estimates show that, under its current commitments, its 2030 greenhouse gas emissions would fall by just 3.4 megatonnes below the province’s business-as-usual forecast – well shy of its 17.6-megatonne goal.
Ontario’s Progressive Conservative government introduced changes to the Endangered Species Act in 2019. One of the new provisions allowed developers to contribute cash to protect habitat across the province, rather than mitigating environmental damage caused by their own building projects. Environmentalist critics labelled the idea “pay-to-slay.”
On the issue of protections for at-risk species, Mr. Piccini said the new, developer-funded government system to pay for habitat and mitigation projects is not yet fully up and running and therefore cannot be judged.
“Through this fund, we’re going to see incredibly impactful actions to preserve species at risk,” Mr. Piccini said. He added that development permits are subject to “robust oversight” and conditions to protect species.
Opposition leaders seized on Monday’s reports, calling them more evidence that Premier Doug Ford’s government doesn’t care about the environment. When Mr. Ford came into office in 2018 he cancelled green-energy projects and railed against the federal government’s carbon pricing scheme. While he has in recent months called for Ontario’s auto sector to become a leader in manufacturing electric cars, he has also once again drawn the ire of environmentalists by promising to build two new highways in the Greater Toronto Area. An election is set for June.
Another of Ms. Lysyk’s new reports says various government ministries, including the Ministry of Environment, “deliberately avoided consulting the public on environmentally significant decisions” over the past year by failing to post decisions online for citizen feedback. This, the report says, defied the province’s Environmental Bill of Rights. The findings echoed a recent Ontario Divisional Court ruling on a challenge launched by environmental groups. The court declared the government’s moves unlawful.
The government policy changes on which consultation wasn’t done included amendments to the Environmental Assessment Act, a move to weaken the powers of local conservation authorities and a boost to the authority of unappealable ministerial zoning orders (MZOs), which the government frequently uses to fast-track approvals of development projects.
Another of Ms. Lysyk’s reports says that the province sought to recover its costs for investigating and monitoring the cleanup of only three hazardous spills between 2011 and 2020, out of 73,000 spills that occurred during that time. Even then, it only sought half of the total $1.3-million it spent.
Looking at a sample of 30 other spills, the report says the province spent $4.5-million on staff time and laboratory tests, but failed to recover the money from polluters. (In most cases, polluters must bear the costs of the actual cleanups themselves.)
On recycling, another report warns that Ontario could run out of landfill room in as little as 11 years because it hasn’t done enough to boost the diversion of industrial, commercial and institutional waste. While about 50 per cent of residential waste is diverted, only 15 per cent of industrial and business waste is kept from winding up in landfills, the report says.
Our Morning Update and Evening Update newsletters are written by Globe editors, giving you a concise summary of the day’s most important headlines. Sign up today.