POLITICS

New rules threaten protection of endangered species in Ontario: watchdog

11/06/2013 10:15 EST | Updated 01/23/2014 06:58 EST
TORONTO - Ontario's environmental watchdog is again taking aim at the governing Liberals, saying new rules they brought in this year threaten the protection of endangered species.

The regulations weaken the law that's supposed to protect threatened plants and animals, as well as their habitats, Environment commissioner Gord Miller said after releasing his latest report Wednesday.

By exempting some groups from obtaining permits, the full protection of the law no longer applies to activities like forestry operations, aggregate pits and quarries, hydroelectric dams and infrastructure construction, Miller said.

The regulations remove the right of the Ministry of Natural Resources to say no, he said.

"Every place, no matter how unique or ecologically important, will be open to activities with the potential to adversely affect species at risk. No place is untouchable or special."

The ministry has failed to do what's needed to make the law work since almost the very day they passed the Endangered Species Act in 2007, he said.

"The ministry has stalled recovery strategies, crafted meaningless government response statements, delayed habitat protection, mismanaged the permitting process and deliberately ignored public participation," Miller said.

"In the process, they have infuriated property owners, industry groups and members of the general public and brought the reputation of the Endangered Species Act into disrepute."

Natural Resources Minister David Orazietti insists the law is the "gold standard" for environmental protection in North America because an independent scientific body helps make decisions about habitat and species protection.

But Miller said he'd have to call it "the brass standard, because it's a little bit tarnished and gold standards don't tarnish."

The government also won't know if its rules are effective because those involved in such activities don't have to file any monitoring reports with the ministry, he said.

Orazietti dismissed Miller's comments, saying there are no broad exemptions and the status of nine endangered species have improved since the Act was passed.

He said he's concerned that Miller doesn't fully understand the regulatory changes and its impact on the legislation.

"The stringent standards are still in place," he said.

He said the new rules allow some "low risk" activities in existing projects to be registered online, such as housing developments that have been 10 years in the works and have gone through lengthy environmental processes and permitting.

Any new or proposed development would still require a permit, he said.

"It would be unfair to certain economic development projects that have been under development where there has been considerable expenditure of resources to bring these to light," Orazietti said.

They still have to provide a "mitigation plan" for the ministry to review for any endangered or threatened species that may be present in the development area, he said.

Forestry companies who provide a forest management plan won't have to obtain a permit for five years, but the ministry would still monitor their activities.

"So this is not something that is an indefinite, permanent exemption," he said.

But the Green party said Premier Kathleen Wynne's government has "sold out" endangered species behind closed doors.

"The Wynne Liberals made a short-sighted and irresponsible decision to sell out protections for species at risk to the highest bidder," party leader Mike Schreiner said in a release.

"We should all be concerned that once again the Liberals have put corporate interests before the public good."

The Liberals should reverse their decision to gut the Act and bring in user fees to pay for environmental protection, as recommended by their own austerity adviser last year, he said.

Miller also butted heads with the Liberals last month, when he criticized them for changes that he said were dismantling other environmental protections and could have "disastrous" results for the province.

He said the government gave themselves the power to delegate powers over Crown land — which makes up 87 per cent of the province — and natural resources to private companies.

Orazietti disputed Miller's findings, saying regulations protecting the land and its development still apply.