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All Nova Scotians Should Support Environmental Rights

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Nova Scotia is a beautiful province to live in.  With its pristine shorelines, undisturbed old-growth forest, and rolling hills, our province truly places natural splendour on display.

Many communities in this province are fortunate enough to live in an environment that is healthy -- the air is clean, they have ready access to clean water, and the land is free from harmful levels of contamination.

But some communities are less fortunate.

For example, effluent from a pulp mill waste treatment plant in Boat Harbour has polluted the local environment.  Members of the Pictou Landing First Nation have described feeling "powerless" and unable to change the situation, which impacts them daily. 

And for more than a decade, residents of Harrietsfield have voiced concerns about the risks a local construction and demolition recycling facility poses to their groundwater. Many in the community have expressed frustration at being left in the dark when it comes to ongoing pollution and government's plans to address it.

These experiences demonstrate why legal recognition of environmental rights -- including the human right to a healthy environment -- is of paramount importance.

For instance, individuals should have rights to access information and to participate in environmental decisions that could impact their lives.  They should have tools available to ask for government intervention to enforce or strengthen laws or permits when necessary to protect their health or environment.  And when all else fails they should have access to the courts.

This is why the introduction of Bill 178, Environmental Bill of Rights, in the Nova Scotia legislature last week is such a positive development.  If made law, it would give communities stronger tools to protect their health and environment and fight for environmental justice.

In addition to providing legal recognition that all Nova Scotians have a right to live in a healthful environment, it would establish many important procedural protections such as a right to request that government review a law, regulation, or permit that fails to protect the environment or human health.  It would also create a new independent oversight body in Nova Scotia in the form of an environmental commissioner.

Legal recognition of environmental rights can have many benefits.  According to the Conference Board of Canada rankings, industrialized countries that recognize the right to a healthy environment have better environmental records than Canada and outperform us economically. Improved environmental performance can in turn help reduce preventable deaths and illnesses caused by exposure to harmful contaminants.

And in providing Nova Scotians strong, enforceable tools to hold government and polluters to account, Bill 178 could trigger improvements to other environmental laws, regulations, and policies.

This not to say that Bill 178 is perfect. It also has room for improvement.

At present it provides for too much Ministerial discretion and its access to justice objectives are hindered by Nova Scotia's lack of an independent environmental tribunal to hear appeals regarding environmental permitting decisions.  Most importantly, it does not recognize or address issues of environmental justice or racism -- that is, the disproportionate burden of environmental hazards borne by racialized, Indigenous, and low-income communities in this province. That's a serious oversight.

Nonetheless, Bill 178 presents an opportunity for all political parties to work together to make the province a leader when it comes to protecting every Nova Scotian's environmental rights.

Environmental rights are a fundamental component of environmental law in the 21st Century, and something we hope to see Nova Scotians and politicians of all stripes embrace.

Scores of Canadians have already mobilized in support of environmental rights. More than 130 municipalities across the country, representing more than a third of Canada's population, have adopted declarations supporting the human right to healthy environment. Halifax and four other communities in Nova Scotia are among them.

The recognition of our right to a healthy environment is not a partisan issue. Public opinion polling indicates that more than 85 per cent of Canadians surveyed agree people should have the right to a healthy environment.

It not hard to see why: Our very survival depends on clean air, water, and soil. As such, environmental rights are human rights -- necessary for life, liberty, and human dignity.

Now it's up to Nova Scotia to make that the law.

Kaitlyn Mitchell is the national program director at Ecojustice, an environmental law charity that is building the case for a better earth. Aaron Ward is the executive director of East Coast Environmental Law, a non-profit dedicated to strengthening environmental law in Atlantic Canada.

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