A sunset over Porcupine Lake, Ontario (Photo credit: Carol Tanguay)
By Adam Meadows and Kerrie Blaise
With thanks to contributions from Dr. Sherrill Richards and Carol Tanguay*
The provincial government has made sweeping changes to environmental assessment (EA) law in Ontario, ending long-standing public safeguards designed to protect the environment and our health. These reforms were ushered in with Schedule 6 of Bill 197, which became law in July 2020. More recently, the provincial government revealed a draft regulation, setting out the proposed list of designated projects that will automatically trigger Comprehensive Environmental Assessments (EA) under the Environmental Assessment Act. As CELA and other environmental groups objected to, the proposed list of designated projects in the draft regulation is not credible or comprehensive because it inexplicably omits too many environmentally significant projects, like mines and smelters.
Without the application of EA law, it means nearby communities will have little to no opportunity to identify or evaluate potential risks to public health or the environment before development occurs. In this blog, CELA follows up with individuals from such a community in Northern Ontario, who weighed in on the government’s recent EA reforms, to understand potential impacts to the environment and community health.
UNDERSTANDING ENVIRONMENTAL ASSESSMENT AND WHY IT MATTERS
In essence, EA is about ‘looking before you leap’ so that the impacts of a proposed project on human, ecological, economic, and social systems are fully considered prior to any governmental decisions that would permit the project to proceed. Done well, the EA process can help to eliminate, or at the very least, reduce or mitigate the potential impacts of a project on the environment and community health.
EA is also an important environmental justice tool, which aids in preventing disproportionate impacts to at-risk communities and ecosystems, and helps ensure the public voice is heard in an accountable, decision-making process before any work on a project begins. This precautionary approach enables informed decisions on whether or not a project should be approved, and whether terms or conditions should be imposed to safeguard the public interest.
The application of EA legislation to mine sites accomplishes something unique that a regulatory statute like the Mining Act cannot – it requires the mining proponent demonstrate the need, purpose, and alternatives to the project before any decision is made. While these hallmarks of EA are also reflected in federal EA processes under the federal Impact Assessment Act, mining projects subject to the federal process focus on impacts narrowly defined by federal jurisdiction (ie. to fish, migratory birds and impacts to Indigenous rights), and are also subject to quantitative thresholds (ie. mines of only a certain size undergo review). Ideally, mining projects should be subject to a harmonized federal/provincial EA process so that there is not a narrowing of the application of EA nor the adverse effects which can be considered.
SAFEGUARDING PUBLIC HEALTH AND THE ENVIRONMENT
In response to Ontario’s draft regulation, a number of concerned members of the public wrote to the province, highlighting how Ontario’s narrowly framed project list puts wildlife, habitat, and the health of Ontarians at risk.
Both Sherrill and Carol were born and raised in Northern Ontario’s mining country and felt compelled to comment through the Environmental Registry about the importance of requiring provincial EAs for mining projects. They have both been pushing for the protection of their local environment and greater accountability of government actions aimed at monitoring and enforcing Ontario’s environmental laws. Sherrill grew up on the shores of Porcupine Lake in Porcupine and still calls this area her home. Carol lives in the community of Porcupine along the same lake (now part of the City of Timmins).
Timmins, Ontario is a known mining hub. As Carol reflects, “Without the mines Timmins would not exist, however, without a clean environment, the people and wildlife will not exist. Environmental assessments are required in order for everything to work well together. Protections need to be enforced and in place so that people and the environment are protected and that industry, etc. can work cohesively.”
Unfortunately, as a recent report by MiningWatch Canada reviewed, none of the mines, mills, or smelters in Timmins have ever received an EA, either federally or provincially. As Carol noted, “We are concerned for our health and the future of our children and grandchildren. To date, there has never been an Environmental Assessment for the Porcupine mining camp.”
A mountain created through years of mining overlooking Porcupine Lake. (Photo credit: Carol Tanguay)
Without EA, there is also a limited opportunity to consider the cumulative impacts of activities, and their interactions with other effects in the area. It is the combination of these effects that concerns Sherrill, who points, out, “I’m concerned about the potential health impacts related to the contamination in Porcupine Lake from both heavy metals and raw sewage. It’s now 2022 and raw sewage is still bypassed into Porcupine Lake when the capacity of the system is exceeded.”
Sherril’s comment was in reference to an outstanding order of the MECP, issued in 2012, which required Timmins to upgrade their deteriorating sewage system, in response to excessive sewage discharge into Porcupine Lake. Despite a successful request to investigate filed with the Environment Commissioner, the upgrades have experienced multiple delays.
In advocating for EA reforms, Carol shared: “Timmins describes my Northern roots and my upbringing. My community of Porcupine gives me a sense of identity and belonging. When you look at the beautiful sunsets over Porcupine Lake, the first thing you see is the beauty.”
Echoing similar sentiments, Sherrill reflected, “There has never been a better time than now, in the midst of this pandemic, to recognize the importance of our environmental laws. Now is the time, listen to the science, improve efficiencies in the Ministry and update our EA processes so that projects like mines aren’t left out.”
* Adam Meadows, JD candidate 2023, has joined CELA as a Law student intern under the Indigenous Lands, Resources, and Government Intensive program at Osgoode Hall Law School
Kerrie Blaise is CELA’s Northern Services Legal Counsel.
The authors are grateful for Sherrill and Carol’s contribution to this article and efforts to protect their community’s health and environment.