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Environmental reviews suspect

Feb. 18, Jason Thorne- The Hamilton Spectator

Environmental assessments of controversial public projects have become a fixture in Ontario. But do they do any environmental good?

Since 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.

This 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.

Unfortunately, as the current case of the proposed mid-peninsula highway (MPH) demonstrates, this is far from the truth in Ontario today.

The MPH 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.

The MPH would pave over hundreds of acres of wetlands, forests and farmlands and create a gash through the Niagara Escarpment World Biosphere Reserve.

The Coalition on the Niagara Escarpment (CONE) is a non-governmental, not-for-profit coalition of 30 organizations that monitors development on the escarpment.

The MPH 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.

Cutting 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.

The hundreds 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.

These 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.

The public 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.

The public 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.

The public 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.

While 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.

And the worst part is, the ministry might just get away with it.

In 1996, 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.

The most 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.

According 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.

Since 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.

So is EA a means of arriving at best possible solution?

Or is it merely a way of "green-washing" projects in order to give the public a false sense of security about environmental impacts?

The final story of the MPH has yet to be told.

But if 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 only.

On the 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 Queen's Park.

Jason 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 visit www.niagaraescarpment.org

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