Planning our Landscape
The Environmental Commissioner of Ontario’s 2004/05 Annual Report to the Legislature was submitted on Nov 1, 2005.
- The entire annual report
- The Supplement to the report
- The Commissioner’s introductory remarks to the Legislature
TORONTO, November 01, 2005 – A major flaw in the province’s planning system may leave Ontario’s natural heritage unprotected, said Gord Miller, Environmental Commissioner of Ontario (ECO). Miller, who monitors compliance by provincial ministries with the Environmental Bill of Rights, released his 2004/2005 annual report, “Planning Our Landscape,” to the Legislature this morning at the Queen’s Park Media Studio.
The Ministry of Municipal Affairs made valuable changes to the Provincial Policy Statement (PPS) in 2005 to deal with urban sprawl, traffic congestion and inappropriate development, said Commissioner Miller. But because “infrastructure” is exempted from the environmental restrictions of the PPS, he explained, critical elements of Ontario’s natural environment – woodlands, wetlands, valleylands, species at risk, water quality – are not protected from aggregate extraction, utility corridors, or highway construction.
“Highway projects, in particular, can have severe environmental impacts. Moving vast quantities of earth and aggregates with heavy machinery can damage streams and wetlands, block wildlife migration corridors, and break up ecosystems,” said Miller. “And now a new document issued by the Ministry of Transportation – ‘Environmental Protection Requirements’ – suggests that the ministry’s environmental assessment process can override important legislation such as the Environmental Protection Act and the federal Fisheries Act. I believe this is a flawed interpretation of the ministry’s responsibilities for protecting the environment.”
This year’s ECO report also looked at the Ministry of Natural Resources’ strategy of suppressing forest fires, which Miller called an approach now “discredited” across North America. Small fires not only help to rejuvenate forest ecosystems, Commissioner Miller pointed out, but also, by burning dead trees and underbrush, can reduce the potential for catastrophic fires that can shut down forestry operations for decades. The problem of the shrinking urban tree canopy in Ontario cities was also covered in the ECO report. With tens of thousands of trees lost in recent decades to urban development and invasive species, Miller urged the provincial government to play a more active role in supporting urban forests as ecosystems.
Commissioner Miller distributed a photo to reporters showing the long-term impacts of cage aquaculture on the sediment of the Great Lakes. More than seven years after aquaculture cages had been removed from Lake Huron’s La Cloche Channel, the effects of the fish feces and uneaten food that had fallen to the lakebed below the floating cages are still visible. The Commissioner called on the Ministry of Natural Resources to develop clear policies for approving licences for cage aquaculture operations, including conditions that ensure water and sediment are not impaired. The ministry should then ensure that the conditions are enforced, Miller added, and that the operations are frequently monitored.
Several articles in the Commissioner’s 2004/2005 report focus on water issues, including the practice of applying untreated septage from septic tanks and portable toilets to farmland, and the contamination of Ontario waterways and beaches when combined municipal sewer systems overflow.
Commissioner Miller said that while governments worldwide face an unprecedented challenge from climate change, Ontario’s approach to the problem is far from adequate: there are no formal meetings between provincial ministries, no timelines for assessing the province’s performance on climate change, and no targets for reducing greenhouse gas emissions in Ontario. The ECO also found that government leadership on energy efficiency for its own buildings was lacking, in spite of studies that show that improvements to a building’s shell, upgrading heating, ventilation, air conditioning and lighting, can contribute to significant reductions in electricity use.
2005 Provincial Policy Statement (39-47)
Ontario’s Provincial Policy Statement is the key guide for planning and development in the province, shaping our landscape for years to come. Changes made by the Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing in the 2005 Provincial Policy Statement are important first steps in dealing with the problems of urban sprawl, traffic congestion and the loss of green space. However, the ECO is concerned that the 2005 PPS has taken a “development-first, environment-second” approach that gives very low priority to the protection of natural areas, wild species and water quality.
Although the 2005 PPS restricts development in natural heritage areas such as coastal wetlands, the term “development” in the new PPS doesn’t include infrastructure such as highways, sewage systems, electric power transmission, aggregate extraction, transit corridors and gas pipelines. Thus, critical elements of the natural environment – woodlands, wetlands, valleylands, species at risk, and sensitive water features – are not protected from activities such as aggregate extraction or highway construction.
Economic goals have priority in the 2005 PPS, including rigid population growth targets. The ECO is concerned that the infrastructure needed to support an expanded population will in turn generate development pressures that further threaten Ontario’s natural heritage areas.
The Greenbelt Act, 2005, and the Greenbelt Plan (47-54) have the goals of protecting natural heritage, water resources, and agricultural lands within the Greater Golden Horseshoe. But these goals may be compromised because the Greenbelt Plan permits highways and aggregate extraction in most of the “Protected Countryside.”
Highway projects involve moving vast quantities of earth and aggregates, using heavy machinery, and have great potential to cause environmental damage – affecting stream drainage patterns; damaging wetlands, wildlife and fish habitat; blocking wildlife migration corridors; and fragmenting ecosystems. In this report, the ECO asked whether the approval processes designed to minimize these impacts are effective in protecting the environment.
Environmental Protection Requirements for Highway Projects (107-111)
The Class EA for Provincial Transportation Facilities (112-116)
The 2005 Provincial Policy Statement contains no provisions to prevent highways from being built through significant wetlands or the habitat of endangered or threatened species. Instead, the PPS merely notes that infrastructure projects could be authorized through an environmental assessment process. However, the Ministry of Transportation’s new “Environmental Protection Requirements” for highway projects suggests that the ministry’s environmental assessment (EA) process can override important environmental legislation such as the Fisheries Act or the Environmental Protection Act. The ECO believes this interpretation is seriously flawed. Moreover, the ministry’s EA process doesn’t include any requirements for government agencies to monitor whether the environment is being protected at the construction stage. Instead, monitoring is carried out by the contracting consortiums building the roads, where rules set by the EA process may be bypassed because of cost and deadline pressures.
Update: Highway Construction Practices (69-70) Property owners in the Muskoka district asked the Ministry of the Environment to investigate construction damage caused by a highway project that had been approved under the environmental assessment process. An audit order by MOE revealed that highway contractors ignored the rules: construction practices had killed mature trees, obstructed a watercourse, caused year-round flooding and siltation of waterways, and bypassed rules for waste sites and replanting of construction sites.
Rehabilitation of Pits and Quarries in Ontario (142-143): An Ontario citizens’ group used the EBR to ask the Ministry of Natural Resources to review whether pits and quarries were being rehabilitated in Ontario, which is explicitly required by law. The group alleged that less than half of the land excavated for gravel and other aggregates is being rehabilitated – in fact, the ministry’s own data indicate that every year for the past decade over 1,000 hectares of land in Ontario is disturbed by aggregate operations, and only some 460 hectares are being rehabilitated each year. MNR said it would undertake the requested review, but after a year and a half, the review has not been released. The ECO is concerned that many pits and quarries are located in ecologically sensitive landscapes such as the Niagara Escarpment and the Oak Ridges Moraine, areas already under severe development pressures, and urges the ministry to complete and release its review as soon as possible.
Aggregate Extraction on the North Shore of Lake Superior (89-90) A controversy arose when it became evident to local residents that a planned quarry for extracting aggregates along a stretch of Lake Superior’s Great Lakes Heritage Coast might not be subject to any environmental requirements. The Ministry of Natural Resources scrambled to post an emergency exception notice on the Environmental Registry, designating the area under the Aggregate Resources Act, which provides a comprehensive framework for managing the environmental impacts of aggregate operations and their effects on nearby communities. The controversial case calls attention to the failure of MNR to subject all significant aggregate-rich areas to the ARA, especially in the north, in spite of a ministry commitment to do so seven years ago.
Ontario’s Forest Fire Management Strategy (75-79) The ECO believes that Ontario’s Forest Fire Management Strategy of suppressing fire is a failed approach to forestry that is now discredited by experience in other parts of North America. The Ministry of Natural Resources policy of suppressing smaller fires and allowing forest fuels to accumulate can create conditions that lead to catastrophic fires that obliterate the ecology of an area and shut down forestry operations for decades. Instead, carefully planned prescribed burns can burn dead and dying trees, reduce fire hazards, and strengthen the rejuvenating role of fire in forest ecosystems. Fire suppression has also contributed to the scarcity of the forest stands that can replace the mature forest as wood supply declines. The absence of fire, along with accelerated forest harvesting and inadequate regeneration efforts, has altered the species composition of the forests and skewed the natural balance of tree age, resulting in forests where trees are either very young or very old.
Sustaining the Urban Forest (201-205) The tree canopy in Ontario’s urban areas is shrinking. In Toronto, for instance, the urban forest has declined from 22 per cent in 1992 to 16 per cent in 2004; in London, forest cover has declined 16.6 per cent since 1998. Tens of thousands of trees have been lost to development, paved surfaces and invasive species, while road salt, drought and soil compaction are damaging the roots of trees still standing. Less forest cover in Ontario cities means less moisture retention, less natural cooling, less habitat for wildlife, and poorer air quality. Despite the importance of urban forest cover, there is little direct regulation by the provincial government in this area, and instead, the maintenance of urban forests is handled by municipalities, by Conservation Authorities, or by thousands of individual landowners. The ECO believes the province needs to play an active role in urban forestry, including research and funding, especially in light of ongoing insect and disease outbreaks.
Energy Consumption and Climate Change
In light of the unprecedented challenge posed by climate change to governments worldwide, the ECO looked at the province’s efforts in the past year to conserve energy through land use planning, MNR’s policy for wind power on Crown land (100-103) and the Ministry of Energy’s restructuring of the electricity sector (103-106).
Building Conservation in Ontario (185-190) In spite of studies that show that the building sector, through improvements to a building’s shell, heating, ventilation, air conditioning and lighting, the building sector, can contribute the largest electricity reductions of any sector, the ECO found that government leadership on energy efficiency for its own buildings was lacking.
Update: Climate Change (59-61) In February 2005, the Ministry of the Environment announced that the Ontario government was taking actions to reduce greenhouse gases in order to help Canada meet its commitments under the Kyoto Protocol. Although MOE cited the replacement of coal-fired generating stations with cleaner sources of power and plans to reduce industrial emissions of smog-causing pollutants and to reduce electricity demand in Ontario by 5 per cent by 2007, the ministry holds the position that the commitments to the Protocol are a federal responsibility. The ECO believes that Ontario’s approach to climate change is not strong enough: there are no formal meetings or timelines set for assessing the province’s performance on climate change and no overall greenhouse gas reduction target has been set.
Aquaculture Policies and Procedures (82-86): When MNR finalized 10 new policies on aquaculture, the most important policy was missing: specific guidance for licensing of cage aquaculture in the Great Lakes. In cage aquaculture, fish feces and uneaten food fall through the floating cages and are deposited on the lakebed below. The potential impacts are significant – not only the effect on water quality, but also the risk to bottom-dwelling animals because of an over-growth of algae. Moreover, MNR doesn’t visit a site before issuing a licence, inspects only infrequently, and doesn’t monitor the operations and their environmental impacts. (See photo, page 6.)
Aquaculture in Georgian Bay – Water Quality and Environmental Monitoring (133-137): Two Ontario residents asked the Ministry of the Environment to investigate whether cage aquaculture in Georgian Bay was leading to a decline in water quality in the Bay, which is a source of local drinking water. Wastes from the cages raise phosphorus levels in the water, create low oxygen levels and conditions that can disrupt food chains and change fish species, and may kill sensitive species in the area. The ECO urges MOE to define water quality policies for cage aquaculture and the Ministry of Natural Resources to develop clear policies for approving licences.
Update: Land Application of Septage (62-64): Each year, Ontarians generate an estimated 1.2 million cubic metres of septage – human wastes from septic tanks and portable toilets – most of which is applied to farmland without treatment. Using the EBR, two Ontario residents asked the Ministry of the Environment to review the practice, given that high levels of pathogens, nutrients and disinfectants make septage a risk to ground and surface waters. Many provinces across Canada have already banned the land application of untreated septage, and in 2002 the Ministry of the Environment proposed banning the practice in Ontario in five years. But the measure still remains at the proposal stage and it now appears the phase-out deadline of 2007 has been set aside. The problem is that the ministry has not set out a clear legal framework of rules and responsibilities for the disposal of septage, and thus there has been no investment, by municipalities or by the private sector, in new septage treatment facilities. In the meantime, the ministry continues to approve new sites for this practice, mainly because alternate storage facilities for septage are simply not available.
Combined Sewer Overflows and Beach Closures (132-133): Concerned that several cities closed beaches from 2002 to 2004 because of bacterial pollution, two Ontario residents used the EBR to ask the Ministry of the Environment to review its policy on combined sewer systems, in which both municipal sewage and stormwater are carried to the local sewage treatment plant in a single pipe. During storms, these systems overflow to local waterways. However, evidence collected by the EBR applicants in Kingston, Toronto, Hamilton and St. Catherines indicated that combined sewers are discharging untreated sewage even in dry weather. MOE agreed to review the Pollution Prevention and Control Plans of the four cities and to consider whether voluntary or mandatory measures are needed to ensure the four municipalities meet the goals of the provincial policy.
Bad Drainage Planning: The McNabb Drain (152-155): The example of the McNabb Drain in Ramara Township shows what can happen when an artificial drainage system, first developed over a hundred years ago to provide drainage for agriculture, is eventually used for runoff from urban and industrial areas. Because of the “hardening” process of paving and building, major changes in runoff intensity and volume are having devastating impacts downstream, including the flooding and erosion of a stream channel and pollution of both the stream and Lake Simcoe. The Ministry of the Environment investigated the situation and ordered that two stormwater management ponds established by the township must now meet the requirements of the Ontario Water Resources Act, which should lead to the design of better stormwater facilities and reduced problems downstream.