The 2008/2009 ECO annual report was submitted to the Speaker of the Legislative Assembly on October 6, 2009.

Chilling Costs of Development Disputes

Oct 6, 2009 – Queen’s Park – Citizen groups fighting to protect natural areas need some protection against intimidating legal tactics, warned the Environmental Commissioner of Ontario in his new Annual Report, released today at Queen’s Park. As Commissioner Gord Miller noted, “The land use planning system is hugely weighted in favour of the development industry. Citizen groups wanting to protect natural heritage can face enormous legal costs at hearings; it can be a frightening prospect.”

A variety of legal manoeuvres such as SLAPPs (Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation) can create a chill on public participation. The Report cites a recent case before the Ontario Municipal Board where citizens faced a claim for costs of $3.2 million which was fortunately denied by the Board. “There’s a clear need for provincial legislation that would put the parties on more equal footing and reduce the threats of SLAPP suits and similar tactics,” said Miller (p. 23-24).

Commissioner Miller warns that the ecosystems we rely on may be losing their resilience, and his new Report, Building Resilience, highlights several examples. Many of our cropland soils, for example, are experiencing considerable erosion, yet the Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs (OMAFRA) deems this loss “tolerable”, and allows the loss of real and potential productivity to be masked by increasing dependence on agrochemicals.

Estimates indicate that over 40 per cent of Ontario croplands have the potential to lose more than six tonnes of soil per hectare, per year. “Soil formation is an extremely slow process, so for practical purposes, such losses are irreplaceable,” noted Miller. The Commissioner urges OMAFRA to set an aggressive soil conservation agenda (p. 61-67).

The report also draws attention to the vulnerable status of amphibians, which are in decline world wide. A number of Ontario frog, toad and salamander species are officially at risk, and face an uncertain future due to threats like habitat loss, chemical pollution, invasive species and changing climate. “Even protected places like Point Pelee National Park have lost some amphibian species since the 1970s,” Miller commented, “so we need to pay closer attention.” (p. 44-50)

Land use planning is another focus of the Report. In anticipation of a planned review of land use planning policy by the Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing, the Commissioner urges stronger protection measures for woodlands. “We’ve lost far too much woodland cover in southern Ontario,” Miller noted, “yet woodlands typically receive only scant attention in municipal official plans.” (p. 17-23).

Each year the Commissioner’s Annual Report highlights environmental concerns raised by members of the public through the Environmental Bill of Rights. In response to one such application, Commissioner Miller recommends that the Ministry of the Environment immediately close the Richmond Landfill site near Napanee – a site that has faced years of controversy and public concerns about local groundwater quality (p. 103-106).

Key Findings

“The resilience of our ecosystems can be dangerously undermined, but we may not notice it until very late in the game,” notes Gord Miller, Ontario’s Environmental Commissioner. For example, the collapse of the Atlantic cod stocks seemed a sudden phenomenon, but in hindsight it appears that managers were not able to see or properly interpret the warning signs.”There’s been no commercial fishing of Atlantic cod since 1992, but the stocks haven’t recovered – there has been some fundamental change in that ecosystem,” Miller observes.

In everyday terms, we think of resilience as a simple concept; as the ability to bounce back from some pressure. Ecologists use the term too, but over the past 40-odd years they have developed a more sophisticated interpretation and a whole field of study, often called “resilience theory”. The Commissioner’s Annual Report, Building Resilience outlines the basics of resilience thinking; it explains why we should pay close attention to this idea, and encourages us to apply it to real life environmental issues.

Resilience: some basics

(see p. 12)

  • Systems are linked in innumerable ways
  • Change is not always linear or predictable; there are surprises
  • Systems naturally experience cycles, including crashes and renewal
  • Crashes occur when systems are pushed beyond certain thresholds
  • Systems may not recover, once pushed into a new regime
Why does resilience matter:

(see p. 4)

Many of the systems we have relied upon to define our way of life – our forests, the Great Lakes, our soils and our climate – are suffering perturbations of which the ultimate consequences are unknown. We need to build resilient systems that can tolerate change and disturbances without totally collapsing.

Resilience is an underlying theme for many Ontario environmental issues:

Farm Soils: estimates indicate that over 40 per cent of Ontario croplands are at risk of soil erosion rates exceeding one tonne of soil per tonne of grain corn produced. We can mask the impacts by increasing use of agrochemicals, but there is a risk that dire symptoms or marked declines in crop yields may “suddenly” appear. (see p.61-67)

Sand and Gravel Extraction: some southern Ontario landscapes, rich in sand and gravel deposits, are pock-marked with pits and quarries, eventually becoming clusters of flooded holes and altered aquifers. Is the Ministry of Natural Resources over-estimating the resilience of such ecosystems? Are they likely to bounce back, or have they been pushed beyond a recovery threshold? (see p. 29-32)

Lake Simcoe – a system under pressure: Lake Simcoe is a classic case of an ecosystem that has lost much of its resilience. Excessive phosphorus loadings caused the lake’s cold water fisheries to collapse decades ago. How will the government’s new protection plan for Lake Simcoe work to restore resilience to this much-loved watershed? (see p. 25-29)

Northern Forest Harvests: There are big changes underway in Ontario’s forest industry, including a feverish new interest in harvesting forest fibre for biofuels. What may be the impacts of intensified harvests of tree branches, needles and leaves for conversion to fuels? What are the likely impacts on soil nutrient levels, diversity of soil micro-organisms and the overall resilience of forests? (see p. 50-54)

Pesticides and Pollinators: Ontario has landmark new legislation banning the cosmetic use of pesticides province-wide. Pesticides are considered one of the main threats to pollinators. How might this new law strengthen ecosystem resilience over time? (see p.68-73)

The Work of the ECO

As an independent officer of the Legislative Assembly of Ontario, Gord Miller is the Environmental Commissioner of Ontario (ECO). He monitors and reports on compliance by 13 provincial ministries with the Environmental Bill of Rights (EBR). Each year the ECO monitors hundreds of environmental decisions posted by ministries on the Environmental Registry. The ECO conducts detailed analyses on a subset of these decisions, and reports to the Legislature and the public through his Annual Report. The ECO also receives applications from members of the public raising specific environmental concerns. In a typical year, the ECO may conduct detailed reviews of 20-40 such applications, which are also summarized in the Annual Report. The ECO handles approximately 2,000 inquiries from the public annually, and reaches an estimated 11,000 people through public presentations.

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