By Lake Ontario Waterkeeper
One of Canada’s most powerful environmental laws is under siege. The Fisheries Act – which prohibits the release of harmful substances into Canadian waters and the destruction of fish habitat – is being eyed by corporations and government agencies hoping to lower national environmental standards.
In early May Lake Ontario Waterkeeper and the other Canadian Waterkeepers filed our objection to the federal government’s plan to change the Fisheries Act regulation that controls the quality of mining effluent. The proposed changes would allow mining companies to dump mining waste into natural ponds, destroying fish habitat forever.
A company’s proposal to use two natural waterways to dump waste from its copper and zinc project in westcentral Newfoundland prompted the proposed change. Even though a federal environmental assessment concluded that, “fish habitat will be harmfully altered and/or destroyed,” Environment Canada stated that preserving the status quo (i.e., the Fisheries Act standard) would significantly impact employment and the other anticipated economic benefits of the project.
Meanwhile, the provinces and federal government are collaborating on another set of rules for municipal wastewater treatment. Like the mining regulations, these new rules would also weaken the Fisheries Act. For two years, the Canadian Council of Ministers of the Environment has been holding meetings and leading discussions about a “Canada-Wide Strategy for the Management of Municipal Wastewater Effluent.” The current proposal includes creating a new regulation that would exempt municipal wastewater from the traditional Fisheries Act test (“deleterious to fish”) and move to a risk-assessment model that would mean different levels of protection for different waterways and different communities.
Currently, the Fisheries Act protects every waterway in the country where fish live, spawn, or eat. Waterkeeper and other Canadian environmental organizations, such as Sierra Legal Defence Fund, have relied on powerful protection of the Fisheries Act to hold polluters accountable in places like Kingston, Hamilton, Toronto, and Moncton. Defendants could never argue that they had economic priorities more important than obeying the law, or that they were innocent because they did not destroy the waterway entirely (an argument akin to letting impaired drivers go free as long as there were no fatalities).
With the help of the Fisheries Act, Waterkeepers and other environmentalists have also been trying to stop chronic sewage pollution from urban treatment plants. Municipal sewage treatment plant operators are meeting these efforts with strong resistance: instead of following the rule (ensuring discharges are not harmful to fish), municipalities began lobbying to weaken the law.
Like the proposed changes to the mining regulations, the plan to weaken restrictions on sewage treatment plant effluent represents a concerted effort to undermine the Fisheries Act. In the hands of lobbyists and other pressure groups, the very purpose of the Fisheries Act is evolving – from pollution prevention to pollution permission.