November 7, 2005

Ontario Environmental Commissioner takes long-term view in reviewing land use planning, water, climate change issues

Land use planning issues, together with their environmental impacts, are a central theme of the 2004-2005 annual report of the Environmental Commissioner of Ontario (ECO). Commissioner Gord Miller presented the report, titled "Planning Our Landscape," to the provincial legislature on November 1.

Although previous reports have also addressed this issue, it has gained added prominence as a result of several recent initiatives by the Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing (MAH) which were posted on the Environmental Bill of Rights (EBR) registry for comment and decision during the reporting period. These included the Provincial Policy Statement (PPS) 2005, the Strong Communities Act and the Greenbelt Act and accompanying Greenbelt Plan.

Commissioner Miller commended MAH for making valuable changes to the PPS in 2005 to deal with urban sprawl, traffic congestion and inappropriate development. Nevertheless, says the report, economic goals have priority in the 2005 PPS, including rigid population growth targets. The ECO is concerned that the infrastructure needed to support an expanded population will in turn generate development pressures that further threaten Ontario's natural heritage areas.

The PPS still contains a significant flaw that could leave Ontario's natural heritage unprotected. Although it restricts development in natural heritage areas such as provincially significant wetlands, the term "development" does not include infrastructure such as highways, sewage systems, electric power transmission, aggregate extraction, transit corridors and gas pipelines.

Because "infrastructure" is exempted from the environmental restrictions of the PPS, Miller explained, critical elements of Ontario's natural environment - woodlands, wetlands, valleylands, species at risk, water quality - are not protected from aggregate extraction, utility corridors, or highway construction.

"Highway projects, in particular, can have severe environmental impacts," he stated. "Moving vast quantities of earth and aggregates with heavy machinery can damage streams and wetlands, block wildlife migration corridors, and break up ecosystems.

"And now a new document issued by the Ministry of Transportation [MTO] - "Environmental Protection Requirements" - suggests that the ministry's environmental assessment [EA] process can override important legislation such as the Environmental Protection Act and the federal Fisheries Act. I believe this is a flawed interpretation of the ministry's responsibilities for protecting the environment," Miller continued.

Moreover, the ECO report notes that the MTO's EA process does not include any requirements for government agencies to monitor whether the environment is being protected at the construction stage. Instead, monitoring is carried out by the contracting consortiums building the roads, where rules set by the EA process may be bypassed because of cost and deadline pressures.

Accordingly, the ECO recommends that the MTO establish training programs for highway construction staff on how to prevent and minimize environmental damage during road construction. Training standards should also be established for environmental inspectors, adds the report.

The report further notes that the goals of the Greenbelt Act, 2005, and of the Greenbelt Plan - namely, protecting natural heritage, water resources, and agricultural lands within the Greater Golden Horseshoe - may be compromised because the Greenbelt Plan permits highways and aggregate extraction in most of the "protected countryside."

This year's ECO report also looked at the Ministry of Natural Resources' [MNR]strategy of suppressing forest fires, which it said is a failed approach to forestry that is now discredited by experience in other parts of North America.

Suppressing smaller fires and allowing forest fuels to accumulate can create conditions leading to catastrophic fires that obliterate the ecology of an area and shut down forestry operations for decades, says the report. Instead, smaller, carefully planned prescribed burns can burn dead and dying trees, reduce fire hazards, and strengthen the rejuvenating role of fire in forest ecosystems.

Fire suppression has also contributed to the scarcity of the forest stands that can replace the mature forest as wood supply declines. The absence of fire, along with accelerated forest harvesting and inadequate regeneration efforts, has altered the species composition of the forests and skewed the natural balance of tree age, resulting in forests where trees are either very young or very old.

The report recommends that MNR require forestry companies to utilized prescribed burns where appropriate, while outlining a direct and supporting role for the Ministry in the process.

Turning to the issue of the "urban forest," the ECO notes that the tree canopy in Ontario's urban areas is shrinking. In Toronto, for instance, the urban forest has declined 27% since 1992; in London, forest cover has declined 16.6% since 1998. Tens of thousands of trees have been lost to development, paved surfaces and invasive species, while road salt, drought and soil compaction are damaging the roots of trees still standing.

Less forest cover in Ontario cities means less moisture retention, less natural cooling, less habitat for wildlife, and poorer air quality.

Despite the importance of urban forest cover, there is little direct regulation by the provincial government in this area, and instead, the maintenance of urban forests is handled by municipalities, by conservation uthorities, or by thousands of individual landowners.

The ECO believes the province needs to play an active role in urban forestry, including research and funding, especially in light of ongoing insect and disease outbreaks. Accordingly, the report recommends that MNR and MAH develop a co-ordinated urban forest strategy to protect urban and heritage trees. This, it says, should be done in collaboration with municipalities, local agencies and environmental non-governmental organizations (ENGOs).

Water quality and other water issues are also discussed in the ECO report. One of these is land application of untreated septage from septic tanks and portable toilets. An estimated 1.2 million cubic metres of septage are generated in Ontario each year, most of which is applied to farmland without treatment. Using the EBR, two Ontario residents asked the Ministry of Environment (MOE) to review the practice, in view of the risk posed to surface waters and groundwater by high levels of pathogens, nutrients and disinfectants in septage.

Many provinces across Canada have already banned the land application of untreated septage, and in 2002 the MOE proposed banning the practice in Ontario in five years. But the measure still remains at the proposal stage and it now appears the phase-out deadline of 2007 has been set aside.

The problem, says the report, is that the Ministry has not set out a clear legal framework of rules and responsibilities for the disposal of septage and thus there has been no investment, by municipalities or by the private sector, in new septage treatment facilities. In the meantime, the MOE continues to approve new sites for this practice, mainly because alternate storage facilities for septage are simply not available.

The water quality impacts of cage aquaculture are reviewed as well. When MNR finalized ten new policies on aquaculture, says the ECO, the most important policy was missing, namely, specific guidance for licensing of cage aquaculture in the Great Lakes. Moreover, MNR does not visit a site before issuing a licence, inspects only infrequently, and does not monitor the operations and their environmental impacts.

In the case of a former aquaculture operation in Lake Huron's La Cloche Channel, for example, the effects of fish feces and uneaten food that fell from floating aquaculture cages are still visible more than seven years after the cages were removed. It has also been observed that spring ice melts earlier over the former aquaculture site, further indication of continuing impacts on sediment and local water chemistry.

Consequently, the Commissioner calls on the MNR to develop transparent, accountable processes related to approvals for cage aquaculture operations, including conditions that ensure water and sediment are not impaired. He added that the ministry should then ensure that the conditions are enforced and that the operations are frequently monitored.

Commissioner Miller took the province to task for its approach to climate change. While governments worldwide face an unprecedented challenge from climate change, he said Ontario's approach to the problem is far from adequate: there are no formal meetings between provincial ministries, no timelines for assessing the province's performance on climate change, and no targets for reducing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions in Ontario.

Although the MOE holds the position that commitments to the Kyoto Protocol are a federal responsibility, both it and the Ministry of Energy (ENG) have committed to supporting Canada's climate change efforts and have initiated specific measures, such as phasing out coal-fired power generation, promoting wind energy development and increasing ethanol levels in gasoline, all of which will contribute to reducing GHG emissions.

Accordingly, the ECO has recommended that the province designate a single lead ministry and provide that ministry with adequate resources to that an overall provincial strategy can be prepared to help meet Canada's climate change obligations.

In related matters, the ECO report reviews the province's efforts in the past year to conserve energy through land use planning, MNR's policy for wind power on Crown land and the ENG restructuring of the electricity sector.

In spite of studies that show that the building sector, through improvements to a building's shell, heating, ventilation, air conditioning and lighting, the building sector, can contribute the largest electricity reductions of any sector, the ECO found that government leadership on energy efficiency for its own buildings was lacking. The report recommends that the Ontario government remove barriers discouraging commercial landlords with provincial government tenants from undertaking major energy efficiency upgrades and recouping the costs through rent increases.

Another recommendation calls for the Ministry of Energy to establish more substantial targets for electricity generation from renewable sources, consulting the public on the longer term.

As an independent officer of the Legislative Assembly of Ontario, the ECO monitors and reports on compliance by provincial ministries with the Environmental Bill of Rights (EBR). The 2005 ECO annual report and recommendations may be viewed on the ECO Web site, More information is also available from Liz Guccione at the Office of the Environmental Commissioner of Ontario, 416/325-3371.

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