January 1, 2007

Ontario MOE can take a bow for progress on programs, says auditor general

By: Mark Sabourin

Accolades are not normally in the offing when the auditor general issues a report on government activities, but Ontario's Ministry of the Environment has much to crow about in this year's review. Following up on a value-for-money audit of the ministry conducted in 2004, the 2006 Annual Report of the Office of the Auditor General indicates that the ministry is proceeding in the right direction.

In general, the report says, the Ontario government has shown "significant improvement" in the past three years in taking action on audit recommendations. Some progress had been made on over 90% of the 2004 recommendations, and for almost half of the recommendations, that progress had been significant. As to the Ministry of the Environment, "according to information received from the Ministry of the Environment, some progress has been made on all of the recommendations in our 2004 Annual Report, with substantial progress having been made on several." Those recommendations covered ministry programs addressing air quality and groundwater.

In 2004, the auditor general found that standards had been revisited for only 18 of 70 air pollutants that had been categorized as high priority in 1996; that, without a periodic renewal requirement, many Certificates of Approval reflected outdated pollution limits; that air quality assessments inaccurately reflected the actual risk to public health; that improvement was required in following up on inspection activities; and that the province's Drive Clean program was afflicted by many improprieties. The 2006 report states that progress has been made on all counts. Efforts to improve air quality have been made on a number of fronts, including implementation of a new Ontario-Quebec Agreement Concerning Transboundary Environmental Impacts; efforts to develop cleaner energy sources; new standards for many harmful pollutants; and the introduction of a risk-based approach for implementing those standards.

Concerning the Groundwater Program, the 2004 report cited the absence of watershed-management plans and concluded that the ministry, lacking an understanding of groundwater resources in the province, "could not determine its success in achieving [their] protection and long-term sustainability." The 2006 review found that progress is being made, but concedes that due to the complexity of the issues, full implementation of the 2004 recommendations will take three or more years to complete. The tabling of the Clean Water Act, 2005, requiring municipal and conservation authority watershed reports and source protection plans, is expected to result in risk management measures that could be implemented by 2010. In addition, the province has instituted a risk-based program for nutrient management and is performing a province-wide water-well inspection sweep.

The report states that the ministry has estimated that all source protection milestones would be achieved by the end of the 2007/08 fiscal year. Priorities include the establishment of Watershed Planning Areas and Source Protection Planning Committees as well as the submission by Watershed Planning Areas of the initial technical assessments required under source protection plans.

Other measures the ministry is taking include improving public access to data from water monitoring networks; co-ordinating technical studies with conservation authorities; and developing an overall provincial source protection framework.

The auditor general emphasizes that this follow-up review is not itself an audit, and that determination of the degree of progress was based on the responses of government officials.

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