Recent Media Coverage

MNR 'undermining' law on species at risk, critics say

Queen's Park Briefing, the Toronto Star

By Andrew Reeves

February 5, 2013

Proposed changes to the Endangered Species Act are coming under heavy public scrutiny as environmental groups rally their supporters to highlight shortcomings in the new regulations.

“The proposed changes are going to dramatically reduce the levels of protection we currently offer through the Endangered Species Act,” said Anne Bell, executive director of Ontario Nature.

“The ministry is actively undermining its own legislation. Personally, I believe the changes are contrary to the purpose of the law, which is to protect endangered species,” she told QP Briefing. The Ministry of Natural Resources is proposing regulatory changes to the act that attempt to “modernize and streamline” its approach to issuing permits, authorizations and licences.

Its submission to the Environmental Registry indicated the ministry must strike a balance between protecting species at risk and “providing certainty” to numerous sectors, including forestry, renewable energy, aggregates and minerals.

“The ministry will set priorities for monitoring, auditing, compliance and enforcement based on human health and safety, the sustainability of our natural resources, and the economy,” said MNR spokeswoman Jolanta Kowalski.

But critics worry that too much emphasis is being placed on facilitating industry and not enough on ensuring adequate protections for species at risk. They are concerned that exemptions to the permitting process might erode the ministry’s authority.

“The proposed changes presented in the Environmental Bill of Rights posting appear to create a new regime in which the [act's] permitting system is largely replaced by exemptions with terms and conditions,” according to Rachel Plotkin, Ontario science projects manager with the David Suzuki Foundation.

Under the current standards, companies wishing to develop land for resource extraction that disrupts endangered species habitat are able to apply for “overall benefit” permits. These force companies to restore the landscape in such a way that the species is - theoretically, at least - better off than it was. “Disturbingly, no mention is made of the need for overall benefit to be achieved as a component of the exemption terms and conditions,” Plotkin said in the foundation’s public submission to the registry.

Overuse of the exemptions clause will “undermine the act’s integrity,” Plotkin said, because exemptions were intended for use in exceptional circumstances and not for “routine industrial and development activity.”

While Bell acknowledges there has been a “sincere effort” from the ministry to ensure overall benefits to habitat outlined in a permit actually happen, she admits that cuts to the ministry in the past decade have limited its ability to act.

“It’s hard to measure the results when MNR doesn’t have the capacity to monitor the permits,” Bell said.

“But industry don’t have to submit a plan or get approval from government now. All of this is gone, and maybe someday the government will follow up and ask to see their plan, but who knows?”

While the current permitting system might be little more than a “rubber stamp” for industry, Sierra Club of Canada executive director John Bennett told QP Briefing it's important for the government to retain the authority to act if need be.

“At least in the present situation, the ministry is required to look at each application and issue a permit so the opportunity for government to intervene if necessary and protect [endangered species] is there,” he said.

Kowalski said “the proposed changes will enable certain kinds of economic development,” but added that “proponents will be responsible for putting measures in place to ensure species at risk are protected.”

Industry self-regulation simply won’t work, Bennett said. “Industry will be required to follow the rules but there won’t be anyone looking over their shoulder,” he said.

The ministry first published the proposed changes on Dec. 5, 2012, for a 47-day public comment period. The deadline was postponed twice, extending the comment period to Feb. 25 for a total of 83 days.

Bennett says his supporters have submitted more than 1,800 of approximately 7,000 comments to the ministry on the proposed changes.

“It’s the public reaction to these rule changes which has led to the extension of the commenting period,” he said.

“The ministry didn’t have time to look through the full extent of public comments in the original time allotted.”

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