Protecting environmentally sensitive land from two proposed highways in Ontario

Wetland in the GTA - CC0 Public Domain
Program area – Nature Status: In progress
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Ontario has proposed two large highway expansions in the Greater Toronto Area. The GTA West Project and the Bradford Bypass (or Holland Marsh Highway) would add up to nearly 75 linear kilometres of paved over greenbelt, wetlands, and key wildlife habitat, potentially causing irreversible damage to watersheds. Both highways would lock in car-centred land uses, facilitating sprawl in rural areas and increasing greenhouse gas emissions.

The GTA West project, a proposed 400 series highway in the northwest Greater Toronto Area, will develop several areas protected under the Greenbelt Plan, including woodlands, endangered species habitat, and sensitive wetlands. Critically, the project would cross one of the few remaining undeveloped parts of the Lake Ontario watershed that provides key habitat to at risk species like the redside dace.

The Bradford Bypass is a proposed controlled access freeway located in Simcoe County and York Region in Ontario’s northern Greater Toronto Area. The project would cross the sensitive and biodiverse Holland Marsh wetland and specialty crop area, potentially contaminating groundwater over a much wider area.

On February 3, 2021, several environmental and community groups jointly requested the federal government conduct federal environmental assessments for the two proposed 400-series Ontario highways. These groups included Environmental Defence, Rescue Lake Simcoe Coalition and Simcoe County Greenbelt Coalition, represented by Ecojustice.

In May, 2021 Federal Minister of Environment and Climate Change Jonathan Wilkinson announced the GTA West Project would be designated for a federal EA, however he failed to designate the Bradford Bypass project for the same critical environmental scrutiny.

The process of scrutinizing the environmental impacts of infrastructure projects in Ontario lacks credibility due to the gutting of environmental assessment laws and policies in recent years.

Ecojustice is intervening in this case to ensure both the GTA West and Bradford Bypass projects undergo comprehensive environmental assessments to protect vital habitats, wildlife, and watersheds in the province. While the province and some promoters of the highway claim that these highways are needed to relieve traffic, the evidence provided to date does not substantiate these claims.

These highways also present environmental justice and equity considerations. Highways are associated with high levels of benzene and other contaminants that have serious health implications for those who live and work near them. Already, there are plans to put residences and workplaces near these highways.

The GTA West project had started to undergo a provincial EA. This EA was halted in 2017 to review the overall need for the project. In 2019, the Ontario government resurrected the project and proposed exempting the project the EA process entirely.

The original 1997 EA for the Bradford Bypass project was superficial in nature, failing to consider cumulative effects, climate change and air pollution, or detail the impacts of the project on natural heritage, migratory birds, fisheries, and First Nations cultural heritage.

A federal EA for the GTA West project for a will ensure that the project receives proper scrutiny, including for key issues such as need and sustainability. While Minister Wilkinson has designated the EA, the process that will actually be followed remains uncertain.

Ecojustice and our clients will continue to hold the province and federal government accountable for the proper oversight and regulation of these two highways.

Key developments

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