Any changes to Canada’s laws on pollution and toxic chemicals will likely not be made until after the next federal election.
Environment Minister Catherine McKenna responded Friday to 87 recommendations made by the House of Commons environment committee a year ago on how to overhaul the Canadian Environmental Protection Act, which governs the protection of human and environmental health through things such as chemical management and air pollution strategies.
In a letter to the committee, McKenna says the government agrees with the intent of most of the recommendations, but that the legislative agenda just can’t accommodate another new bill right now.
She says the government is “committed to introducing a bill to reform (the act) as soon as possible in a future Parliament” and will in the meantime consult widely on exactly how to update the legislation.
That likely means there won’t be any changes to how Canada manages toxic chemicals and air pollution until after the next election, which is scheduled for October 2019.
McKenna says the government is trying to do things that don’t require legislative amendments, such as mandatory product labelling when a toxic chemical is present and considering vulnerable populations like children or pregnant women when assessing how a chemical should be managed.
However, she is not yet ready to agree to enshrine the right to a healthy environment in federal law.
The delays are irritating to opposition members on the committee and the environmental community, all of whom were hoping the government was going to act much faster.
“This is not responsible government,” said Conservative environment critic Ed Fast. “It certainly looks like they’ve been sitting on their hands and it undermines the work and the expectation of the committee members.”
Fast said he suspects the government wants to spend a year consulting and then use the issue as a campaign tool in the next federal election, scheduled for October 2019.
Muhannad Malas, toxics program manager at Environmental Defence, called it “very disappointing” that a year after the report, the government is only at the point of launching consultations and making nonlegislative changes. It is even more disappointing than any amendments to the act will be delayed more than a year, he said.
“We are miles behind Europe and we are miles behind some American states.”
Labels and assertions to consider vulnerable populations are all well and good, he added, but for those things to really have an impact they need to be in the act, not just an outside regulation or policy, Malas said.
The act, known as CEPA, must be reviewed every five years; the committee undertook its latest review in 2016. McKenna said last fall she would notify the committee this month what actions she intended to take.
The committee’s recommendations included amendments to give cabinet more authority to demand data and testing results on products to help assess their risk to Canadians, and that the act require all products containing hazardous substances to have mandatory warning labels.
In the year since the committee report was made public, a number of different groups have put their weight behind it. Others have pointed to new studies which could help guide the government’s response, such as national tests showing the presence of bisphenol A – a toxic chemical – in the bloodstreams of Canadians.
Another study found the presence of cancer-causing chemicals in baby bibs and blankets – chemicals already banned in many products, but still used in other applications, such as waterproofing and stain resistance.
In February, more than 500 doctors and scientists in Canada asked Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to amend the law to put the onus on companies to prove their products are safe for people and the environment, rather than science having to prove otherwise.
Malas called it disappointing that McKenna didn’t address that request in her response at all.