June 12, 2006

Minister outlines plans for improving Ontario EA process

Changes proposed to Ontario's environmental assessment (EA) process will make it easier to navigate, shorten the government decision-making process and ensure sound environmental planning for large infrastructure projects.

"A more effective and efficient environmental assessment process will...protect the environment while saving time and money in the planning of energy, transit and waste initiatives. Our proposals will mean a faster yes or a faster no for applicants while completely protecting the environment," Environment Minister Laurel Broten told a lunchtime briefing session on June 6.

The EA process promotes good environmental planning by determining the potential effects of infrastructure projects before they begin. In addition to proposing changes to enhance the efficiency of the process, the Ministry of Environment (MOE) has pledged to work with EA practitioners, environmental and community groups, as well as the public to:

*streamline the approvals process for transit projects;

*develop a new waste regulation that standardizes the process based on type, size and impact of project;

*integrate the EA process with planning processes under other provincial legislation to reduce duplication especially for energy, transit and waste initiatives;

*ensure that projects receive a level of review appropriate to their potential environmental impact; and

*improve education and guidance to eliminate confusion and false starts.

The proposed improvements would result in a process that uses the best available science, and give proponents the tools to get projects through the EA process faster without sacrificing environmental protection. Time and cost savings will depend on the size and complexity of the project.

The proposals are based on recommendations from an advisory panel set up by the government in June 2004. Made up of experts from academia, industry, the legal profession and municipalities, the panel's assigned task was to provide advice on improving the EA process, focusing on three sectors: energy, waste and transit/transportation.

Observers from the waste management industry are waiting for further details but were initially disappointed with the announcement, which they hoped would tackle core problems, such as the requirement that a private proponent demonstrate the "need" for a project -- something envisaged originally for large public sector undertakings.

"It's as if the minister thinks the problem here is that we need to be educated about the process," said one waste industry professional (who preferred not to be named), obviously feeling patronized. The observer also expressed concern about the idea of a regulation that will potentially discriminate between lists of different types of waste projects deemed to pose greater or lesser threats based on their "perceived environmental footprint."

"The whole point of EA is to determine environmental impacts, not prejudge these things," the industry member said.

Waste industry professionals will likely view the announced changes more as a continuation of a lengthy discussion process than as bold reform that will solve the fundamental problems of EA in Ontario.

Planned measures to improve the EA process (subject to further consultation) include:

*establishing codes of practice to provide clarity and consistency on key steps of the EA process;

*ensuring that the appropriate level of EA is applied;

*provision of EA training and education; and

*development of a new EA Web site.

Steps intended to produce faster decisions to protect the environment include:

*integrating EA with other planning processes;

*shortening the government decision-making process;

*developing suggested proponent timelines; and

*facilitating the resolution of issues.

Another option would be to delegate the minister's Class EA decisions: the minister's comments alluded to depoliticizing the process by allowing the director to make decisions.

Sector-specific enhancements would entail:

*streamlining the EA process for transit projects;

*amending Electricity Regulation 116 to refine the screening process and review and revise triggers to exempt "green" projects; and

*developing a new regulation for waste management projects. This suggests that EAs will be scaled based on the perceived "environmental footprint."

The next steps in refining the process will be to consult on key elements of EA improvements and continue discussions on the nature of improvements and the rigor of changes required. This will lead to a roll-out of improvements over the next several months.

~with files from Guy Crittenden, Editor of Solid Waste & Recycling magazine

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