Ontario’s waters are suffering from an epidemic of toxic spills. From the petrochemical valley in Sarnia to the heavily developed Greater Toronto Region, hundreds of spills occur daily. Over the years, this litany of spills has eroded the public’s ability to safely swim, drink, and fish on the Great Lakes.
A recent report prepared by the Toronto Region Conservation Authority reveals how the frequency and volume of spills in the Toronto Region is ravaging the area’s waters: There were 6936 reported spills in the Toronto Region between 1988 and 2000. More than 4050 of these incidents had measurable impacts.
Industrial spills, in particular, are a source of concern for water quality advocates. In the past, the people who manufacture, store, and treat toxic wastes have suggested that spills and diminished water quality are unavoidable. Government has been at a loss to effectively enforce environmental legislation because industrial spills often occur in areas already so polluted that it is difficult to prove environmental impairment.
All of this changes with the introduction of “Environmental Penalties” in Ontario.
The idea is that, just like in hockey or football, an industry player who breaks the rules is given a penalty. Environmental Penalties are not a fine and they do not mean the polluter won’t be prosecuted later if there is evidence of serious offence.
Environmental Penalties are simply a new framework for doing business in Ontario, protecting our waterways from contamination from core industries like petroleum, pulp and paper, and iron and steel.
Environmental Penalties are good news for Ontarians and bad news for polluters. It is not surprising, then, that they are being introduced amidst a flurry of controversy. The proposal is being called a bill with “many sharp teeth.” Industry observers are even labelling it “draconian”.
Meanwhile, Waterkeeper Alliance President, Robert F. Kennedy Jr. has publicly praised the Penalties, saying, “This announcement signals … an end to the race to the bottom for lower standards in North America.”
So why all the fuss? Before Environmental Penalties, most polluters in Ontario could only be charged for a spill if the government or citizens could prove that the contaminants caused an “environmental impact.” In effect, this policy meant that the province had a two-tier system for environmental protection: citizens living in pristine communities were offered greater protections, because it was easier to prove a spill had harmed the local ecosystem.
Citizens living in polluted communities, like the Great Lakes Areas of Concern, were offered less protection because their waterways were already so polluted that a spill was deemed an everyday event. “After all,” many believed, “the fish are already so contaminated and the beaches are already closed, what real harm is done?”
As a result, industries operating in contaminated areas had a perverse incentive to keep polluting. And communities that suffered from tainted water and poisoned fish kept on suffering.
Environmental Penalties are a new tool to protect these industrial communities. Not only do they force business to internalize the costs of operating in Ontario, they provide communities with access to the resources they need for emergency response and clean-up. This is a just relief for Ontario’s citizens.
Environmental Penalties send a clear message to all polluters: the public’s right to clean water comes first. Period.