Feb. 18, Jason Thorne- The Hamilton Spectator
assessments of controversial public projects have become a fixture
in Ontario. But do they do any environmental good?
the passage of Ontario's Environmental Assessment Act in 1975, everything
from landfill sites to bridge crossings has had to undergo a review
of their environmental impacts to determine if the project should
go ahead and, if so, under what conditions.
legislation has created a public perception that the most environmentally
destructive proposals are somehow stopped; that environmental assessment
(EA) somehow weeds out the worst proposals and ensures that only safe
and environmentally-sustainable developments are allowed to proceed.
as the current case of the proposed mid-peninsula highway (MPH) demonstrates,
this is far from the truth in Ontario today.
is a nightmare project brought to us by the provincial Ministry of
Transportation (MTO). It would be a 130-kilometre, $1.2 billion mega-highway,
stretching from the Canada-U.S. border in Niagara region to either
Highway 403 in Hamilton, Highway 407 in Burlington, or Highway 401
west of Milton.
would pave over hundreds of acres of wetlands, forests and farmlands
and create a gash through the Niagara Escarpment World Biosphere Reserve.
on the Niagara Escarpment (CONE) is a non-governmental, not-for-profit
coalition of 30 organizations that monitors development on the escarpment.
is one of the most significant threats to the escarpment environment
that CONE has seen since it was founded 25 years ago. It would bring
urban sprawl pressures up to the boundaries of the Niagara Escarpment
to an extent not experienced since Ontario passed special Niagara
Escarpment legislation in 1973, to protect this precious natural treasure.
an expressway through this area would have major negative environmental
impacts, so Ontario's Environmental Assessment Act automatically kicks
in. The MTO initiated the assessment process with a series of public
information meetings last fall.
of citizens who came out to these meetings believed that the environmental
assessment process would be the opportunity they had been waiting
for to demonstrate the sheer folly of this highway proposal and to
highlight various other means of solving our transportation problems.
hopes and expectations came crashing down in early February at the
final round of public meetings, when the MTO presented its proposed
environmental assessment "terms of reference" -- its plan
for what issues it wants to discuss during the process.
interest is served by the environmental assessment looking at whether
or not we really need yet another new highway. The ministry wants
the environmental assessment to assume from the start that a new highway
must be built.
interest is served by the environmental assessment comparing and contrasting
alternatives to the MPH, such as rail and transit. The ministry wants
the environmental assessment to focus solely on highways.
interest is served by the assessment examining the environmental impacts
not just of the highway itself, but of all of the urban sprawl development
that the highway would bring. The ministry wants to restrict the environmental
assessment to an examination of impacts within the highway corridor.
the public interest is served by a full and comprehensive environmental
assessment, the ministry of transport is proposing a scaled-down process
that virtually guarantees a new highway will be built.
worst part is, the ministry might just get away with it.
Ontario's Environmental Assessment Act was gutted by the Mike Harris
government. The changes made to the act may not have garnered much
public attention at the time, but now the impacts of the changes are
being felt on the ground and people are starting to realize how important
and devastating those changes are.
profound change was to give the minister of the environment full discretionary
power to determine the breadth of issues to be examined in an environmental
assessment. The minister can now decide what issues will, or will
not, be on the table for discussion during the environmental assessment.
to a study by the Canadian Environmental Law Association, published
in the Journal of Environmental Law and Practice in June 2002, the
minister has used this power to cut off debate about the environmental
impacts of several major public projects.
the provincial government overhauled the act in 1996, the minister
of the environment has not once forced a project proponent to examine
alternative solutions. And, most tellingly, only one project has been
stopped from proceeding by an EA since 1996.
EA a means of arriving at best possible solution?
it merely a way of "green-washing" projects in order to
give the public a false sense of security about environmental impacts?
story of the MPH has yet to be told.
the minister of the environment allows the ministry of transport to
dodge discussion of non-highway alternatives during the upcoming environmental
assessment, it will join a long list of projects from the past seven
years that will have undergone an environmental assessment in name
other hand, if the minister of the environment pays heed to the true
intent of environmental assessment, rejects the ministry of transport's
proposed "terms of reference," and forces a more comprehensive
review, there may be cause for optimism that one of Ontario's most
important environmental laws has not been completely abandoned by
Thorne is executive director of the Coalition on the Niagara Escarpment.
Founded in 1978, CONE is a coalition of 30 organizations working to
protect the Niagara Escarpment World Biosphere Reserve. For more information