OTTAWA – The federal government is jeopardizing Canadians’ health and the environment by failing to enforce its own environmental laws, according to a new report from Ecojustice.

Getting Tough on Environmental Crime? evaluates the federal government’s record on how well it’s enforcing the country’s key environmental laws. The report analyzes available enforcement information under several federal environmental laws since 2000 and finds the federal government is underperforming on many fronts.

“Environmental laws protect the air, water and land we need to be healthy and keep us safe from pollution, toxic chemicals and overdevelopment,” said William Amos, Director of the Ecojustice Clinic at the University of Ottawa and co-author of the report. “However, these laws are only effective when properly enforced by the governments that enacted them.”

The report found that the number of inspections and warnings issued under the Canadian Environmental Protection Act (CEPA), one of Canada’s most important pollution laws, has declined since 2005-06 — despite an increase in the number of enforcement officers. The number of CEPA investigations, prosecutions, and convictions has also declined steadily since 2003-04.

“The average number of convictions under CEPA — about 20 per year — is extremely small in relation to the number of inspections, warnings and investigations,” Amos said. “Considering that the threat of a conviction is crucial to deterring polluters, these low numbers cast serious doubt on the effectiveness of CEPA enforcement in preventing environmental crime.”

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, according to the report. 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.

Part of the problem, the report found, is that enforcement data gathered under different federal environmental laws is often inconsistent, incomplete and hard to access. Very limited information identifying environmental offenders, incident location and the exact nature of the violation is then disclosed to the public. Data on compliance rates by regulated entities is not publicly available.

“The Canadian government should make all information about pollution, environmental degradation and enforcement efforts publicly available online,” Amos said. The report recommends adopting an online enforcement disclosure approach similar to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Enforcement and Compliance History Online (ECHO).

“Canadians should be able to log on, type their postal code into an online database and see who is breaking environmental laws and what government is doing to prevent and punish those violations,” Amos said.

The report offers a series of recommendations about how the government can better safeguard every Canadian’s right to a healthy environment, including:

Provide sufficient resources for all environmental enforcement departments, particularly Environment Canada, Transport Canada and Fisheries and Oceans Canada, to ensure quality reporting and quality control.

Establish a comprehensive online database to provide full disclosure of compliance and enforcement of all federal environmental laws.
Release all non-confidential enforcement information concerning regulated entities (e.g., businesses and municipalities), including inspections, investigations, warnings, orders, prosecutions, convictions, penalties and fines.