Ontario’s environmental commissioner backs the demands of a Hamilton citizen’s group for real enforcement of provincial pollution laws. The commissioner is strongly criticizing the Ministry of the Environment (MOE) on two issues, adding more fuel to questions about whether the ministry’s local office is doing its job.
In a highlighted item from his annual report to the legislature, commissioner Gord Miller praised the work of Environment Hamilton in ending illegal emissions of a harbourfront asphalt plant ignored for months by the local MOE office. The non–profit citizen group forced action by using the Environmental Bill of Rights (EBR) to demand an investigation after it discovered the polluting factory was operating without compulsory ministry permits.
“The Environmental Commissioner Office (ECO) is pleased that MOE decided to undertake this investigation, and that the ministry ultimately brought McAsphalt Industries into compliance using a Provincial Officer’s Order, explains the 2012–13 report. “However, the ECO is disturbed by the ministry’s delay in taking action. MOE clearly knew as early as June 2012, if not earlier, that the company had begun constructing the facility and was partially operating without an ECA – clear violations of the EPA. Yet, the ministry waited five months to bring the company into compliance, and only after receiving an application for investigation. MOE should have initiated its compliance efforts as soon as it became aware of the violation.”
The report “cautions the ministry that it risks undermining its approval program by willingly turning a ‘blind eye’ to facilities” that start operations without the required approvals. It slams the delay in releasing the EBR decision to apparently allow the company time to obtain operating approvals without shutting down.
The annual report also praises Environment Hamilton’s proposal that ministry staff be empowered to issue fines for obvious violations of air pollution rules as has long been done for damaging spills to water. The MOE turned down that proposal earlier this year, but the commissioner says Environment Hamilton “raised valid points on the need for more compliance and enforcement tools to address air violations” and argues the MOE “should have at least conducted a review to consider an expansion of the environmental penalties program.”
In support of this recommendation, the annual report cites a “feeble response” to problematic emissions by a cement company near Picton where the MOE “was unable to complete the necessary background work before the limitation period to lay charges expired” despite knowing the emissions “were causing adverse effects for area residents for almost a decade.” The commissioner argues this example also “illustrates the need for better compliance and enforcement.”
A repeat of this criticism might be expected in next year’s ECO report with respect to the long delay and botched follow–up on MOE charges over apparent air pollution violations by Arcelor–Mittal Dofasco. Court action has been postponed twice on the 13 charges laid earlier this year after months of photographic documentation by Environment Hamilton because the MOE failed to meet deadlines to submit its evidence.
The lack of effective provincial action on air pollution has already convinced city council to consider establishing a bylaw to reduce health–damaging emissions.
The local MOE office was earlier criticized for long delays dealing with toxic chemicals flowing off Hamilton’s airport that have contaminated over 50 kilometres of the Welland River including the Binbrook Conservation Area reservoir. It is nearly four years since federal scientists discovered highly contaminated turtles in the reservoir and alerted the MOE, but a cleanup plan is still missing. The pollution was not made public until Environment Hamilton forced action more than a year after the MOE had been notified. V