June 27, 2005

Bill 133 provides textbook illustration of how not to make environmental laws

Ontario's Bill 133, labelled by Ontario Environment Minister Leona Dombrowsky as the "you spill, you pay" bill, became law earlier this month following one of the most shameful processes ever for all key stakeholders. The Minister misled the public as to what the bill can do, while Ministry staff came forward with some very convoluted drafting. Industry used a tactic that only added to the impression of sleaze. And environmental groups ignored years of progress in linking environment and economy, reverting to a simplistic "get tough with industry" approach.

For months Dombrowsky presented Bill 133 as the centrepiece of her government's environmental legislation. But early in the process she limited the legislation to only a very small number of Ontario companies, including those who are already doing much more than most to prevent pollution. In the Ministry's own words, the bill will have "no impact on most Ontario companies."

Amendments introduced just before it was passed by the Liberal government so significantly changed the bill that convoluted language was needed to try to defend against likely court challenges. But this was a bill that came almost entirely from the politicians. Early in the process senior bureaucrats made it clear that this was not their bill and that they were not prepared to defend it.

Industry responded to the bill by establishing the misleadingly-named Coalition for a Sustainable Environment and hiring Warren Kinsella, former assistant to Prime Minister Jean Chretien, to try to sink the bill. No effort to try to present alternatives or to deal with the real issues. Just an old-fashioned, sink-the-bill-so-we-can-go-back-to-our-polluting-ways kind of approach.

Environmental groups were decidedly conflicted. Dr Rick Smith, executive director of Environmental Defence Canada, told NOW magazine in a May 2005 article that the bill would have a very limited impact. Rob Wright of Sierra Legal Defence Canada pointed out in the same article that the bill misses a lot of the spill-related pollution that occurs in Canada. Yet when the bill passed, the groups were out applauding as if this were the greatest legislation ever. They know it is not.

Now Ontario's environment ministry has embarked on a program of "transformation" to develop "a new way of protecting our environment." A new way is desperately needed, but it will emerge only if industry stops pretending there is no problem, if environmental groups abandon their industry-bashing, and if government brings a truly professional approach to multistakeholder consultations.

Bill 133 has been an excellent example of how not to proceed.

~Colin Isaacs

Colin Isaacs, head of the CIAL Group and publisher of the Gallon Environmental Letter, reviews environment-related trends in policy (government and corporate) and legislation for ELW. Comments may be E-mailed to cisaacs@compuserve.com.

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