A newly proposed bill in the Ontario legislature has some advocates sounding the alarm over what they say are the removal of "vital" environmental protections.
Last week, Infrastructure Minister Kinga Surma quietly introduced Bill 69, the Reducing Inefficiencies Act. Intended to "enhance fiscal management, cut red tape, and save taxpayers dollars," the proposed legislation would allow Environment Minister David Piccini to alter, or waive altogether, the 30-day period between when comments are given on a class environmental assessment project and when it can continue.
A simplified version of environmental assessments, a class environmental assessment sets out a standardized planning process for groups or classes of activities. It applies to projects, such as municipal and provincial roads, provincial transportation facilities, and waterpower projects, that are carried out routinely and therefore have predictable environmental effects that can be readily managed.
Depending on the information gathered during a class environmental assessment, a project may be referred to the more substantive process.
Describing the 30 days as a "waiting period," the government said in a release that its removal will "help projects get built faster without compromising environmental standards and protections."
However, Phil Pothen, Ontario Environment Program Manager with Environmental Defence, told STOREYS that the time period is actually a "vital" step in protecting the environment.
"This is the latest small step in Ontario's long march towards replacing substantive environmental protections with symbolic box-ticking exercises," Pothen said, calling the legislation "concerning."
"What [the 30 days] actually is, is a period during which the Environment Minister is supposed to be applying the results of the consultation process. What [the legislation] is setting up is a situation where, without even bothering to read any of the comments received through the class environmental assessment, the government can make the decision to let a project go ahead."
Without that 30 day waiting period, the opportunity for the public and environmental organizations to raise concerns about the results of an assessment is significantly curtailed, he cautioned.
Gary Wheeler, a spokesperson for Minister Piccini, told STOREYS that, if passed, the proposed legislation would "not have any impact" on existing class environmental assessments or environmental protections, and the 30-day waiting period would only be waived if there were "no outstanding concerns."
A spokesperson for Minister Surma deferred questions to Minister Piccini's office.
When asked how the Minister plans to ensure that environmental standards are not compromised should the bill pass, Wheeler said the class environmental assessment process would still "require proponents to assess potential environmental impacts, identify mitigation measures, and consult with Indigenous communities, the public, and stakeholders before a project can proceed."
When asked what sort of projects would still be subject to the 30 day period, Wheeler said the wait would continue to apply to all class environmental assessment projects, "except in circumstances where the Minister were to exercise the proposed new authority to waive or alter the waiting period."
With all the planning and procurement required for the types of projects that are subject to class environmental assessments, waiting an extra month to get shovels in the ground would have barely any effect on when a project can be delivered, Pothen argued.
Wheeler countered that the timeframe may be significant in some instances, such as seasonal construction windows. Skipping the waiting period in such a scenario would allow construction to begin earlier, he said, saving time and money for builders and communities.
"What we'll see is not that the projects themselves get completed any faster, but that the moment the waiting period is waived, you'll have proponents rushing to do all the environmental damage up front, so that any pushback becomes moot," Pothen said.
"Like the cutting of trees in Moss Park [for Metrolinx's new Ontario Line]. They'll end up cutting the trees long before they ever actually do any construction work. It's very hard to see how this will speed anything up."