12 November 2012
Ministry of Natural Resources
300 Water Street, Floor 5
Re: EBR Registry number 011-6751 – Modernizing Approvals
While I agree that Modernization of Approvals is long overdue in MNR, I wish to offer the following brief suggestions. Most importantly, given the extensive environmental damage that has been done to Ontario’s waters by past projects/developments (e.g., waterpower, subdivisions, sewage and other pollutant discharges, water extractions, canals etc.) that lacked thorough environmental review, it will be essential to maintain objective, rigorous government review and long-term oversight of projects having potentially significant environmental, social, cultural or natural heritage impacts on Ontario’s waterways. In fact the review and oversight of many such projects should be strengthened to include regional and provincial cumulative effects assessments.
The approvals process is important work belonging with government in an unfettered manner, and it should include clear and transparent consultation with Ontario citizens. It must not be delegated to vested interests, because experience has shown the significant weaknesses with such delegations and can cause perceptions of the “fox is in charge of the henhouse”. Indeed, environmental reviews and oversight that protect, conserve and restore Ontario’s natural resources may be one of the most important tasks of government environmental agencies. In many instances this has involved the disposition of important Crown resources on behalf of Ontario citizens. This is important work that many Ontarians care deeply about. While I believe that efficiencies in permitting and approvals, and streamlining of process can and should be made in a way that benefits the client, stakeholders and Ministry of Natural Resources (MNR). It must be done without compromising public health and safety, or the sustainability and health of the environment and natural resources; unfortunately, this has not always been achieved. In fact approvals processes have been carried out without providing adequate and transparent consultation with citizens having values that may or may not align with those of the proponent nor government officials. This unfortunate and all too frequent circumstance needs improvement while searching for efficiencies in the overall process (see the recent ECO report for instance).
There is no question that approvals need streamlining, and that duplication of processes need to be reviewed. There are many projects that do not need intense scrutiny and be approved much more efficiently (e.g. small docks, boathouses etc.), while others need much more rigorous review, unfettered by political pushback, with more substantial mitigation requirements (e.g., waterpower, canals, channelization, sewage and other effluents that effect aquatic habitat etc.) . Indeed, there is a common perception that many large projects having major potential impact are subject to less environmental controls and oversight than the average citizen wishing to install a minor improvement on his residence such as a dock or other small shoreline improvement. This happens because of a major flaw in the process that enables proponents of large projects to lobby and negotiate behind closed doors while the rest of Ontario citizens are provided no or limited input into the development of conditions of approval. As projects often can have devastating impacts on environmental, cultural, social and natural heritage values of citizens, they should be provided clear and transparent opportunities to comment on conditions of approval for projects having medium or major potential impacts on these values. This is not to say that docks and other shoreline works do not have potential effects (particularly cumulative effects) requiring some oversight, but there appears to be a major imbalance in the process that need re-balancing.
I agree that fees charged for approvals need to be reviewed, and re-balanced based on the size of project and perhaps significance of impact, ability to pay and market value. These fees should come back to the oversight program to ensure continuing conservation, protection, restoration and sustainable use of Ontario’s natural resources. This could be done much in the same manner as the sport fish licensing fees.
I worry about removing controls completely, and think that there should be broad public consultation before such an approach is seriously considered. Any process that involves categorization of projects into “little or no impact” or other form of “risk assessment” requires serious, thorough and broad public consultation, and should include cumulative effects/ecosystem approach considerations. But simplifying processes is an excellent goal, as is the use of technology to streamline processes.
Cumulative effects, ecosystem approach and the precautionary principle should all be central considerations in any exercise attempting to modernize approvals, but all three are noticeable by their absence in the current modernization document. Indeed, as mentioned earlier, there are aspects of the approvals processes that need far more rigour than is currently carried out, to the detriment of natural resource values. This is a major flaw – I understand that this is an exercise in finding fiscal room, but there is an overwhelming need to adjust the current approvals processes for medium and major projects, having potentially significant impact, to create more rigour and oversight of these projects while making the approvals process substantially less prone to lobbying and other large and small p political interference. The current process is riddled with opportunities for interference in what should be at first a science, social and culturally based assessment. Politics can become involved later in process, but should involve equal opportunity for all Ontario citizens to provide input to a fully transparent process. At no stage should the conditions of approval for any permit or authorization for projects having medium or major potential impact be negotiated without equal opportunity for other representatives of Ontario citizens having other values, to be at the table and to provide meaningful comment. At the very least, conditions of approval (such as LRIA permits) for projects with potentially major or medium risk, be posted on the EBR for comment.
I also wish to reiterate that broad based representatives of Ontario citizens with a wide range of values and interests should be able to provide meaningful input at an early stage to any exercise that involves categorization of projects, especially in terms of risk. I suggest that that a public advisory committee be established, comprised of members having this wide range of interests, to provide input into the whole modernization of approvals process as it moves forward.
In short, this modernization process should not be undertaken solely as an exercise to reduce costs to government and reduce red tape for proponents. Rather, it should also be undertaken as an opportunity to strengthen and improve key aspects of the approval process that have been broken for a long time. At the end of the day, the approvals process should clearly be designed to ensure ecosystem sustainability, conserve and enhance biodiversity, and to ensure that development carries on in a much more sustainable way. This is a great opportunity to learn from past mistakes, and improve the approvals process, while streamlining and eliminating unnecessary duplication at the same time. The modernization process is an important one, and needs to be conducted in a very careful manner. Given that this policy process has potentially far reaching and significant effects on Ontario’s environment, I request that drafts of this exercise progresses be posted on the EBR for comment for 60 days. Please register me as an interested stakeholder in this process.
Many large and medium sized projects can have major impact on the environmental, socioeconomic, cultural and natural heritage fabric of Ontario, lasting for 100 years or more. There should be no reason in this enlightened millennium to trade off other natural resource values in a simplistic fashion (particularly other renewable resource values such as fish and aquatic biodiversity), in favour of creating the most beneficial economic climate for proponents. There should always be strict requirements for mitigation. The process of achieving this should be immune from politics at the staff level. If trade-offs are to be made, they should always be clearly identified, carried out with full and transparent public consultation, and with clear rationale. Trade-offs should never be made without first requiring effective mitigation.
Thank you for the opportunity to comment.
Honourable Michael Gravelle, Minister of Natural Resources – Minister.email@example.com
Gord Miller, ECO – Commissioner@ECO.on.ca
Dr. Terry Quinny, OFAH Prov. Man., Fish & Wildlife Services – firstname.lastname@example.org
Matt DeMille, OFAH Assist. Man., Fish & Wildlife Services – Matt_Demille@ofah.org
Linda Heron, Ontario Rivers Alliance – email@example.com