‘Worst of the worst’: Upcoming changes to Canadian environmental law do not solve toxic pollution problem
Pollution from more than 40 highly toxic chemicals has increased dramatically in recent decades in Ontario, Alberta and Quebec, potentially exposing millions of Canadians to harmful groundwater and air pollution, according to a new report. analysis.
The review by the Canadian Environmental Law Association (CELA) focused on federal National Pollutant Release Inventory emissions data for a group of cancer-causing chemicals, including asbestos, arsenic, dioxins and benzene between 2006 and 2018. The toxins are typically produced as waste from mining operations, factories and other industrial processes before being released into the environment at permitted concentrations by the environmental laws of Canada.
While air emissions of these chemicals have declined, particularly in Ontario, the researchers found that land-based pollution from dumping waste into waterways or landfills has increased in all three provinces. In Quebec, land-based pollution increased by 587%, while Ontario and Alberta only saw their pollution roughly double.
Although some of these increases can be attributed to new industrial activities, CELA warned that the data suggests that polluters are simply replacing waste disposal techniques that relied on air emissions with new approaches that release pollution. in waterways and landfills.
Ontario’s land-based pollution from these chemicals was about 1,000 times higher per capita than pollution from the US state of New Jersey, which has a similar economic and manufacturing profile. Air pollution in the Canadian province was more than 28 times higher than that of its American counterpart.
Air emissions in Alberta also rose by about a sixth, unlike the other two provinces, which both saw declines.
“These (chemicals) are the worst of the worst,” CELA legal counsel Joe Castrilli said. Yet despite the chemicals’ known risks, they have been more widely released into the environment in recent years – a failure, he explained, of Canada’s main environmental law, the Canadian Environmental Protection Act. environment (CEPA). The legislation is currently being updated for the first time in over 20 years.
Environment and Climate Change Canada (ECCC) says the proposed amendments will address Canadians’ “key concerns and expectations” about toxic pollution and give the department “tools to manage a wide range of environmental and health risks.” . The proposed rules require the government to create a list of potentially harmful chemicals to assess their negative impacts before they are released into the environment.
They also replace existing regulations that allow the government to ban chemicals with new ones focused on banning polluting practices. It’s a worrying change for Castrilli. The government has largely avoided banning chemicals in the past and instead focused on reducing their harmful effects – an approach that allows polluting industries to continue dumping tens of millions of kilograms of harmful waste into the environment. environment over the 13-year period examined by CELA.
“We need to look at this in the context of the big picture,” said Meinhard Doelle, a professor of environmental and maritime law at Dalhousie University. “Emissions are still enormous…and if (CEPA’s) goal is to reduce and eliminate emissions of toxic substances in a fragile environment, it is a dismal failure.”
Emissions of more than 40 highly toxic chemicals in Ontario, Alberta and Quebec have risen dramatically in recent decades, potentially exposing millions of Canadians to harmful groundwater and air pollution, new analysis finds .
Chemical production has increased 50-fold since the 1950s. If nothing is done to curb production, the global chemical load is expected to be three times higher than current levels by 2050, according to CELA.
Earlier this year, an international team of researchers warned that chemical companies have produced more volumes and types of chemicals than the planet can safely support. The team called on countries to curb both the production and development of new chemicals to avoid irreversible damage to people, animals and the environment.
“There is no way to determine a planetary boundary for every (chemical),” explained co-author Miriam Diamond, a professor at the University of Toronto. Instead, the researchers looked at the pace of new chemical inventions and production and assessed whether Canada and other countries are developing environmental rules fast enough to prevent pollution.
“The answer is a resounding no. We’re so behind in our ability to assess and understand these entities. We can’t keep up.”
Yet those warnings are not reflected in the government’s proposed updates to CEPA, Castrilli said.
The new legislation — Bill S-5 — does not propose tougher rules to ban harmful chemicals and replace them with safer alternatives. It will not require companies to create a pollution prevention plan, or to check whether the chemical waste they produce is toxic. It also won’t cover pesticides – a major category of toxic chemicals – even though the EU has promised to halve pesticide use by 2030 for environmental and health reasons.
While enshrining Canadians’ right to a healthy environment, the new law does not provide an easy way for people to sue polluters or the government to ensure that right is actually protected. ECCC has confirmed that the law will require the Minister of the Environment to consider the cumulative impact of chemicals and their impact on vulnerable people.
Yet without a clear path to justice for those impacted by pollution – disproportionately women and children, low-income Canadians, and Black and Indigenous people – these provisions are likely to have little impact when it’s about protecting people from toxic chemicals, Doelle said.
“Part of the reason polluters get away with polluting is that those most directly affected are the least powerful in society, at least in terms of political influence,” Doelle said. “That’s why we have less effective measures to control and prevent pollution.”