“If we’re not indemnified and the water becomes contaminated, basically we can go to jail,” Jamie McGarvey, the mayor of Parry Sound, Ont. and president of the Association of Municipalities Ontario (AMO), told a government committee Monday.
“I think that for a decision that has been made by someone else to put us in that position is wrong.”
If we’re not indemnified and the water becomes contaminated, basically we can go to jail.Jamie McGarvey
McGarvey was speaking at a hearing on Bill 132, the Progressive Conservatives’ “Better for People, Smarter for Business Act.” The 92-page bill makes changes to dozens of existing laws affecting 14 ministries. One of those laws is the Aggregate Resources Act, which outlines rules for extracting resources like sand and gravel.
Bill 132 would void any local zoning bylaws that limit how deep companies can dig for aggregate. It would also let the minister of natural resources amend licences that were given out for extraction above the water table to allow extraction below the water table. AMO says extraction could open up pathways for contaminants to leak into aquifers — and once one aquifer is contaminated, it can spread.
Watch: An example of how development can lead to tainted drinking water. Story continues after the video.
PCs say there’s no danger to water
Andrea Khanjin, a PC MPP who serves as parliamentary assistant to the minister of the environment, said she’s not concerned. Municipalities don’t employ experts who can determine when it’s safe to dig, she said, so it makes sense for the province to take on that responsibility.
“We do have in-house scientists and monitoring that are able to evaluate all the environmental effects of digging behind the water table. Now they’re required to take a permit from the province, not the municipality. So we’re taking that off of their shoulders,” she told HuffPost Canada in an interview Tuesday.
But McGarvey said if any extraction does impact drinking water, municipal councillors could be liable. Under Ontario’s Safe Drinking Water Act, municipal councils are legally responsible for providing water that meets quality standards.
“That simply isn’t fair, and we do not believe it is the province’s intention,” McGarvey told the committee.
Yet a spokesperson for Minister of Natural Resources John Yakabuski said Ontario won’t change any municipal responsibilities under the Safe Drinking Water Act.
The new application process for aggregate operations will be more rigorous than before, Justine Lewkowicz told HuffPost by email.
“This would further empower municipalities and others by allowing them to officially object to an application and provide the opportunity to have their concerns heard by the Local Planning Appeal Tribunal,” she said.
“There will be no change in a municipality’s ability to fulfill its obligations under the Safe Drinking Water Act. Municipal comments and objections will continue to play a significant role in influencing decisions.”
Watch: Premier Doug Ford defends cancelling wind turbines. Story continues after video.
Environmental groups also testified that the bill could have wide-ranging impacts on pollution and pesticide use.
Keith Brooks of Environmental Defence said the government is “curtailing” the public’s ability to understand what it’s doing by rushing long bills through the stages of approval.
“It feels like it’s intentional. It’s intentional to have an omnibus bill that is so big, makes changes to something like 80 statutes, that it’s very difficult for anybody to wrap their heads around the full extent of what’s being proposed,” Brooks, the advocacy group’s programs director, told HuffPost Canada in an interview Tuesday.
It’s intentional to have an omnibus bill that is so big ... it’s very difficult for anybody to wrap their heads around the full extent of what’s being proposed.Keith Brooks
“It may be so as people cannot get informed and people cannot get organized and people cannot push back against the changes that are proposed in the bill.”
He told the committee that Environmental Defence appreciates that the government did post the bill for public comment, as required by law.
“But if Ontario was serious about consultation and listening to the people, the government would have allowed more time for the public to digest the government’s proposals before they introduced this bill,” Brooks said.
“Perhaps they could have even invited stakeholders in to walk through elements of the proposals, as was common practice in the past.”
Khanjin said the government did consult stakeholders on many aspects of the bill and that the public can send feedback even after the official consultation period closes on Wednesday.
“Certainly, nothing precludes anyone from writing to the minister or myself after that period of time,” she said.