Minister of Environment and Climate Change Jonathan Wilkinson speaks with the media following a cabinet meeting in Ottawa, Tuesday, February 4, 2020. Environment Canada is doing fewer inspections, investigations and prosecutions to enforce its law protecting people from toxic chemicals and air pollution. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld

Investigations, prosecutions for polluting in Canada down sharply since 2015

The Canadian Environmental Protection Act governs how Canada manages toxic chemicals and air pollution

Environment Canada has been doing fewer inspections, investigations and prosecutions over the last five years to enforce a law protecting people from toxic chemicals and air pollution.

According to figures provided last month in response to a written question submitted in the House of Commons, the department investigated 43 companies for violations of the Canadian Environmental Protection Act in 2015-16. There were 22 prosecutions and convictions.

In each of the last two fiscal years, however, the department investigated 12 companies. One was prosecuted and convicted.

“It definitely raises a lot of questions and concerns,” said NDP MP Laurel Collins, the critic for environment and climate change who posed the question.

“It’s wild that there was only one investigation that led to a prosecution in 2018 and 2019,” she said. “I think most Canadians would be surprised to hear that. I don’t think anyone thinks there is only one company violating.”

The Canadian Environmental Protection Act (CEPA) governs how Canada manages toxic chemicals and air pollution.

In February, Collins submitted the order paper question, which is what MPs use when they want a more detailed answer from the government than is usually possible during the daily oral question period in the House of Commons. She was seeking an update to a 2018 report on CEPA enforcement from the federal environment commissioner.

That report called out Environment Canada for disproportionately focusing on dry cleaners and the fluid they use for cleaning — known as perchloroethylene — even though it was not more toxic than other substances investigators were supposed to be monitoring.

Collins says she was disheartened to find that enforcement has fallen “dramatically.”

Asked to explain the drop in investigations under the act, a spokesperson for Environment Canada said only that investigations can be complex and take many years to complete.

Environment Minister Jonathan Wilkinson would not comment because enforcement is an arm’s-length process that must remain outside the political realm, according to spokeswoman Moira Kelly.

The data provided to Collins does not mirror the numbers the department publishes in its annual report on the Canadian Environmental Protection Act. The response to Collins looked at investigations by the number of companies involved. The annual report reflected the number of investigations for each regulation under the act. Some companies are investigated under more than one regulation.

Those annual reports do show the number of total inspections the department is doing has also dropped substantially, from 3,898 in 2015-16, to 1,608 in 2018-19.

READ MORE: Plastics bans, environmental monitoring get short shrift during pandemic

Companies that have been convicted end up on a national registry of environmental offenders. Some of the most recent cases involved selling products with volatile organic compounds above legal limits, chemical leaks and spills from electrical transformers, selling toxic chemicals to companies without making sure they had proper storage facilities available, and improperly disposing seafood waste in the ocean.

Muhannad Malas, the toxics program manager at Environmental Defence, an advocacy organization, said the Liberal government tries to bill itself as having the “gold standard” of environmental protections but there is just not very much enforcement happening.

“When you start digging into the numbers here you find that the government is not taking it seriously,” he said.

The Liberals formed government in the fall of 2015 and were re-elected, with a minority mandate, in October 2019.

The government is also well behind schedule in reforming the Canadian Environmental Protection Act. The law has to be reviewed every five years. The last review began in 2016 and was completed by the House of Commons environment committee in June 2017.

The committee made more than 80 recommendations, including a suggestion to consider enshrining the right to a healthy environment in the law, mandatory labels for hazardous materials in a product, and better data collection on those products.

Malas said he was encouraged when strengthening the law was one of the items in Wilkinson’s mandate letter last fall. He is worried the COVID-19 pandemic, which has delayed numerous other environmental promises including better fuel standards and a single-use plastics ban, will also push back CEPA reform.

He said the government has spent the last 2.5 years consulting and working on it so introducing the amendments should, at this point, “be pretty simple.”

Kelly said in an email the government is still committed to reforming the act but also indicated the challenges posed by COVID-19 might be a factor in when that can happen.

Mia Rabson, The Canadian Press


Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.

Want to support local journalism during the pandemic? Make a donation here.

Environment

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Rare comet NEOWISE and aurora lights captured in Okanagan

The image was captured over Big Horn Lake near Kelowna with a Pixel 4XL android phone

‘We know people are going to come to Kelowna’: Basran addresses COVID-19 cluster

The mayor said people need to continue following the advice of the medical health officer, Dr. Bonnie Henry

City of Kelowna to hold funds for 2023 Memorial Cup bid

$135,000 of the city’s initial $225,000 commitment to the tournament will be held for a future bid

Money earmarked for affordable housing will stay, not go to tourism: Kelowna city council

A controversial motion suggested splitting reserve between housing, tourism

Morning Start: Big Bertha is the oldest cow to ever live

Your morning start for Tuesday, July 14, 2020

Sources say Canada, U.S. likely to extend mutual travel ban into late August

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau hinted at the possibility after a phone call with U.S. President

B.C. man who went by ‘Doctor Ray Gaglardi’ charged with sex assault of teenage boys

The man, 75, is accused of assaulting teenage boys he met through Coquitlam-area churches

B.C.’s potential deficit $12.5 billion as spending spikes, taxes drop

Finance Minister Carole James gives COVID-19 outlook

Windows broken, racist graffiti left on Summerland home

Family says nothing like this has happened since they moved to Summerland in 1980s

Oliver cherry farm allowed to continue operating following positive COVID-19 cases

Interior Health not concerned about health risk to individuals consuming products from farm

Vernon Search and Rescue aids injured Okanagan Rail Trail cyclist

Group’s Utility Terrain Vehicle proving to be a valuable asset on the popular trail

Hitchhiker with metal pipe prompts RCMP to close of Highway 1 near Salmon Arm

Police respond to report of man who pointed what was believed to be a rifle at passing driver

Canadians torn on scaling back COVID-19 benefits to save money: poll

Of those surveyed, 78 per cent said they were worried about the size of the deficit

Summerland approves solar project

Despite community opposition, council voted 4-3 for Cartwright Mountain location

Most Read