Think somebody is breaking an environmental law? You can ask the government to investigate!
If you have good reason to believe that a person, company or group is violating an environmental act, regulation or instrument (permit, licence or approval), and if the government is doing nothing about it, you can ask the government to investigate the violation under the Environmental Bill of Rights (EBR).
For example, Ontarians have asked the government to investigate:
Since 1994, Ontarians have submitted over 230 Applications for Investigation. Although ministries often deny these applications, they frequently visit the site of the alleged contravention and act on the issues raised in the application. In other words, Applications for Investigation often do a great deal of good even if the ministry denies the application.
Note that you can only request investigations from certain ministries under certain laws. Also, do not expect instant results. Even if undertaken, applications take months or years to produce results. For urgent matters, call your nearest ministry office (search the Ontario Government’s online telephone directory). If it is a spill onto land or into water, call the Ministry of the Environment’s Spills Action Centre using its province-wide toll-free number: 1-800-268-6060. The Spills Action Centre operates 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.
You can also read the decisions that ministries made on applications in the 2017/2018 reporting year.
Any two Ontario residents can jointly ask a ministry to investigate if they think someone has contravened or violated an environmentally significant act, regulation, or instrument. For example, you may believe that the owner of a junkyard is illegally disposing of tires at night, or that a construction company is filling in protected wetlands, or that a company is releasing toxic air emissions at a rate higher than permitted in its environmental compliance approval.
Before you complete your application, gather as much evidence as you can about the alleged violation. Note the location, time of day, people involved, any physical evidence (such as dead fish, empty chemical barrels, etc.), and any other evidence (for example, licence plate numbers, company names, videos or photographs of the activity). If you witnessed the incident, write down what you saw, as soon as you can after you saw it. The stronger the evidence you put together, the better the chance that the ministry will undertake the investigation and take action.
You may only ask for an investigation to be undertaken in relation to acts, regulations or instruments that are prescribed under the EBR for purposes of Applications for Investigation.
The Application for Investigation Process
- Download and print an Application for Investigation form or contact the ECO to have one sent to you.
- Complete all sections of the application form. Make sure you include:
- Your names, addresses and declarations that you are both Ontario residents.
- A description of the alleged violation. Make sure you identify the act, regulation or instrument that you think has been contravened. If you need help doing this, please contact the ECO.
- The names and addresses of the alleged contravenors, if available.
- A summary of the evidence supporting your request.
- A list of witnesses, if possible.
- Details about any previous contact you’ve had with the ministry or the ECO about the alleged contravention.
All personal information provided in your application is kept confidential. However, an applicant’s personal information may be disclosed if the investigation results in further government action outside of the EBR, such as a prosecution or other administrative action.
If you need assistance filling out your application, contact the ECO.
- Provide a sworn statement of belief (statutory declaration) to confirm that you believe the facts alleged in your application are true. Two blank statutory declarations are attached to the Application for Investigation form, for your convenience. Take your completed application to a lawyer, notary public or Commissioner of Oaths. They’ll help you and your co-applicant complete the statutory declaration. Both you and your co-applicant must provide sworn statements of belief.
- Send your application—along with your statutory declarations—to the ECO. You should keep copies for yourselves.
- Within 10 days of receiving your completed application form, the ECO will forward it to the appropriate ministry, or will contact you if there are any problems with the application that need to be addressed before it can be forwarded to the ministry.
- Within 20 days of receiving it from the ECO, the ministry must let you know it has received your application.
- If the ministry decides not to investigate, it must let you and the ECO know within 60 days of receiving your application. The ministry’s response should indicate why it decided not to investigate. The ministry does not have to investigate if, in its opinion:
- Your application is frivolous or vexatious;
- The alleged contravention isn’t serious enough to warrant an investigation;
- The alleged contravention isn’t likely to harm the environment; or
- An investigation is already under way or has already been completed.
If you receive a notice within 60 days denying your application (i.e., advising that the ministry will not undertake an investigation), then the Application for Investigation process comes to an end.
If you do not receive notice of a ministry decision not to investigate within 60 days, this usually means the ministry has decided to undertake the investigation.
- If the ministry decides to investigate, and the investigation is not completed within 120 days of receiving your application, the ministry will give you a written estimate of how long the investigation will take.
- After the investigation is completed, the ministry has 30 days to let you and the ECO know the outcome of its investigation and any actions the ministry has taken or proposes to take as a result.
- Once the Application for Investigation process has come to an end (either because the ministry denied the application, or completed an investigation) the Environmental Commissioner will review and report on how the ministry handled the application in the ECO’s annual report to the Legislature.
Nudging an Asphalt Maker into Compliance
In May 2012, Lynda Lukasik and Don McLean noticed something curious: McAsphalt Industries, Canada’s largest asphalt maker, had begun operating an asphalt blending and storage facility in Hamilton even though it hadn’t yet obtained the air emissions approval required by law. So the pair submitted an Application for Investigation under the EBR on behalf of the non-profit organization Environment Hamilton. The Ministry of the Environment decided to conduct the investigation and found that the facility was indeed operating without a valid approval, violating the Environmental Protection Act. The ministry ordered the company to cease operations until an approval was issued, which ultimately included terms and conditions like installing equipment to control emissions. The ministry committed to monitoring and inspecting the facility.
Addressing Noise and Emissions from a Neighbouring Business
“In 2000, the Canadian Environmental Law Association (CELA) represented clients who were suffering serious health impacts caused by noise and particulate emissions from a business operation. Despite numerous complaints to municipal and provincial governments, the pollution continued unabated for almost 30 years. After CELA’s clients requested an investigation under the EBR, the Ministry of the Environment laid charges and the company was convicted and fined. This case highlights the profound and immediate impact that the EBR can have in ensuring prompt government action to prevent environmental harm.”
Ramani Nadarajah, Counsel, Canadian Environmental Law Association