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Ford government’s red-tape bill lightens penalties for polluters, environmentalists charge

The Ontario government appears headed for a showdown with environmentalists over its new bill to cut red tape, which will rely more on fines than prosecutions to penalize polluters except in cases of “serious violations.”

While Environment Minister Jeff Yurek said expanding administrative fines “will give us a quick and effective tool against polluters,” the lobby group Environmental Defence maintains the proposed legislation will let polluters off easier by eliminating daily fines for infractions in favour of fines per incident.

“It’s less money and removes any incentive for somebody who’s been caught in contravention to stop doing whatever they’re doing,” group spokesman Keith Brooks said Friday.

Money from the fines will be redirected to environmental projects throughout the province, said Yurek, adding that the current regime of fines is limited and “results in an overreliance on burdensome, costly and time-consuming enforcement tools.”

The wide-ranging bill — known as the Better for People Smarter for Business Act — was introduced Monday. Its environmental provisions are up for public comment on the provincial environment registry until Nov. 27.

Yurek’s office said the bill will expand the environment ministry’s powers to levy penalties on “many offences,” with fines of up to $200,000 per contravention under the Environmental Protection Act and the Ontario Water Resources Act, $100,000 under the Safe Drinking Water Act and Pesticides Act, and $10,000 under the Nutrient Management Act.

“There is a gap in the ministry’s compliance and enforcement tool kit, which is why we are proposing to expand the list of environmental offences these penalties can be applied to,” it said.

But Environmental Defence and the New Democrats said the per-contravention fines will send the wrong message for polluters who use toxic pesticides, dump sewage into waterways or foul the air.

“The Ford government has proposed eliminating an existing $100,000-per-day penalty for environmental polluters and replacing it with a one-off fine of $10,000. Further, the government is pushing to cap environmental fines at an overall maximum of $200,000,” said NDP environment critic Ian Arthur, MPP for Kingston and the Islands.

“That means a company dumping toxic waste into a lake for 10 days will be fined $200,000 instead of $1 million.”

Yurek’s office said the proposed expansion of fines is more complex than critics realize and insisted “the ministry is not lowering any penalties.”

“There are, in fact, instances where there are higher penalties that before, and we’re expanding the ability to charge these monetary penalties to offences that are currently not even allowed to be subject to monetary penalties,” said communications director Chelsea Dolan.

“The ministry still has the discretion to pursue charges once determining the severity of the offence.”

Brooks said the proposed changes from the government “came out of left field” and took the environmental movement by surprise.

“They have not really met with environmental groups and don’t really seem interested in doing so,” he added, noting that the 30-day comment period is the legal minimum.

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“We had no indication this was coming. We’re still trying to get our heads around this bill to itemize all the problems.”

Just last month, Ontario’s Divisional Court ruled in a split decision that the Ford government acted illegally by axing the previous Liberal administration’s cap-and-trade program without public consultation.

Rob Ferguson

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