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Ontario regulations are jeopardizing species at risk, report says

By Miriam Katawazi,
The Toronto Star,
December 12 2017

A new report by environmental groups states that weak provincial laws are allowing industries to carry out activities in areas home to species at risk.

The report found that as of Oct. 11 there are 2,065 activities being carried out without effective oversight by the Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry, in areas home to the province’s most vulnerable species, including the American badger.

Some of the most harmful industries to Ontario’s wildlife are able to carry out activities and projects with no government oversight or public accountability, a new report by three environmental groups says.

The report states that a 2013 amendment to a previous regulation is allowing certain industries to be exempt from certain laws under the Endangered Species Act, which prohibits any harm to species at risk and their habitats.

“I think that it’s fairly terrifying,” said Sarah McDonald, a lawyer at Ecojustice, one of the three organizations that developed the report. “Many of the industries that are exempted engage in activities that have widespread harmful impacts on endangered species and are not subject to any sort of oversight or public accountability.”

The report, also written by the David Suzuki Foundation and Ontario Nature, found that as of Oct. 11 there are 2,065 activities being carried out without effective oversight by the Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry, in areas home to the province’s most vulnerable species, including boreal woodland caribou, gypsy cuckoo bumble bees, American badgers and chimney swifts.

The report found that species at risk continue to face endangerment because of weak government regulations and laws for industries that threaten their habitats, including the chimney swifts.

A spokesperson for the Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry said that information regarding these activities is available upon request but that generally the information is considered sensitive in order to protect the species at risk.

The Endangered Species Act typically requires industries to apply for permits for activities that might harm a species at risk. A condition, often, to receive a permit is that the activity or project would have to achieve an overall benefit to a species at risk, said Rachel Plotkin, a manager at the David Suzuki Foundation.

But the 2013 amendment allows a handful of industries, including forestry, hydroelectric generation, aggregate pits and quarries and early exploration mining, to carry out activities without needing a permit, said Plotkin.

Ontario regulations are also jeopardizing the gypsy cuckoo bumble bee, the report said. ?I think that it?s fairly terrifying,? a lawyer at Ecojustice, one of the three organizations that developed the report, said.

They simply have to register with the Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry and, in some cases, develop a mitigation plan, which would detail how the harm caused by the proponent will be reduced, she said, adding that the plans don’t have to always be submitted to or reviewed by the ministry unless requested.

“Certain activities can proceed by registering the work with the ministry and following specific conditions outlined in regulation,” said ministry spokesperson Jolanta Kowalski. “Eligible activities are typically routine work undertaken in a predictable way. Specific circumstances and requirements must be followed and higher-risk activities can’t follow this streamlined approach.”

“These exemptions allow operations to proceed despite harm to species at risk and their habitat,” said Plotkin. “With far less stringent requirements than meeting the test of overall benefit, in its place, is the much weaker standard of minimizing harmful impact.”

The Boreal woodland caribou is also at risk.

The industries exempted are some of the most harmful to species at risk, McDonald said.

“Under the Endangered Species Act there would be no way for the ministry to tell an industry that has an exemption under the regulation that they can’t go forward,” McDonald said. “The ministry has taken away its own authority to refuse these projects and all the proponent has to do is register.”

The loss of these species at risk is paramount, said Plotkin. The loss of one could affect the entire ecosystem because each has an ecological role to play in ensuring the system is resilient.

“If we continue to mitigate instead of doing what is needed to protect them then we are going to lose species,” said Plotkin. “We will have a depleted world for our children and grandchildren, a world that is less rich in biodiversity and the species people in Ontario identify with.”

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