Ecojustice Blog – Special Update Posted on December 13, 2011 (updated: February 17, 2015)

Canada failing to enforce its environmental laws, says auditor’s report

Will AmosLawyer

On the heels of Ecojustice’s report on how the federal government is failing to enforce its own environmental laws, Canada’s environment commissioner confirmed Tuesday that Ottawa is seriously struggling.

In his fall report, federal environment commissioner Scott Vaughan said government agencies such as Environment Canada are doing a poor job of enforcing environmental laws and aren’t properly punishing those who break them.

“We concluded that the enforcement program was not well-managed to adequately enforce compliance with the Canadian Environmental Protection Act,” wrote Vaughan in his annual report tabled in Parliament.

“There are significant problems. These are serious problems that exist,” Vaughan said Tuesday following the report’s release.

His findings echo the results of Ecojustice’s own study, Getting Tough on Environmental Crime?, which was released Monday. We found that the number of inspections and warnings issued under CEPA, one of Canada’s most important pollution laws, has declined since 2005-06 — despite an increase in the number of enforcement officers. Meanwhile, average fines for environmental offenders, which amount to about $10,000 per CEPA conviction, are also too low to serve as an effective deterrent for would-be polluters. Consider this: It took Environment Canada more than 20 years to collect $2.4-million in fines under CEPA. In comparison, the Toronto Public Library collected $2.6-million in fines for overdue books in 2009 alone.

Vaughan’s audit looked at 45 out of CEPA’s 53 regulations and apparently found problems with many of them. According to his report, Environment Canada is missing information about who is following regulations and who is violating them. Our report shone a light on the same problem, going a step further to note that very limited information identifying environmental offenders, incident location and the exact nature of the incident is made available to the public.

The environment commissioner’s report also pointed out major problems at Transport Canada, which regulates the transportation of dangerous goods like industrial chemicals or fuel products. It found that “many of the most dangerous products regulated under the [Transportation of Dangerous Goods] Act have been shipped for years without the Department having completed a detailed verification of plans for an immediate emergency response.”

Ecojustice lawyer Karen Campbell, who was interviewed on CBC radio Tuesday morning, said these findings underscore the need to take immediate government action to protect people and the environment from hazardous materials.

“It’s not often I read things as damning as what’s being said by the environment commissioner. The report explicitly said the ministry has no ability to deal with long-standing concerns and doesn’t know what’s going on.”

Apparently, Environment Canada’s senior management “has refused to acknowledge the facts presented in this report,” according to Vaughan’s document. However, Ecojustice has made some suggestions about how the federal government could solve some of these issues, including:

Ensuring all enforcement departments (Environment Canada, Transport Canada, Fisheries and Oceans Canada) have sufficient resources to complete and collect data on enforcement.

Releasing all enforcement information in a timely manner using an online database that allows Canadians to log on, type in their postal code and see who is breaking environmental laws and what government is doing to prevent and punish those violations. (Sign our petition, calling on the federal government to create this database.)

Through litigation and public awareness, Ecojustice continues to work to strengthen Canada’s environmental laws and make sure they’re being followed.

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