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COVID-19 no excuse for letting environmental protection suffer: OPSEU/SEFPO

Toronto – OPSEU/SEFPO President Warren (Smokey) Thomas is calling out the provincial government for weakening environmental protection while the public was focused on the COVID-19 health crisis.

Thomas’s rebuke comes in the wake of Auditor General Bonnie Lysyk’s 2020 Annual Report of the Environmental Value-for-Money Audits and the Operation of the Environmental Bill of Rights (EBR).

“The Auditor General paints a bleak picture of environmental protection in Ontario,” said Thomas. “She suggests the Ministry of the Environment gave its seal of approval retroactively to failures to protect human health and the natural environment. That’s unacceptable.”

In her report, Lysyk said the environment ministry, which administers the EBR, and the municipal affairs ministry had failed to consult Ontarians through the Environmental Registry about changes to the Environmental Assessment Act and the Planning Act. The changes received legislative approval through Bill 197, the COVID-19 Economic Recovery Act.

Lysyk found examples of non-compliance in several other ministries with respect to their obligations under the EBR, noting that some had not posted environmentally significant proposals on the Environmental Registry. When ministries did post, the public were not given sufficient information about the proposal or enough time to respond.

Shawn Burr, union co-chair of the environment ministry’s Employee Relations Committee, explained that the Ministry of the Environment officially suspended public comment under the EBR for environmentally significant proposals in April to assist with the pandemic response.

“Out of the 276 environmentally significant proposals made during this suspension, just nine, or three per cent, actually needed such an exemption,” he said. “One of the proposals enacted sweeping changes to the Environmental Assessment Act the backbone of environmental protection in the province – all done with no public consultation.”

OPSEU/SEFPO First Vice-President/Treasurer Eduardo (Eddy) Almeida is also concerned the ministry provided such a broad exemption. “Ontarians have a right to a strong voice in environmental decision-making, whether it’s to protect endangered species, reduce greenhouse gases or increase parks and conservation areas,” he said.

“I wholeheartedly support measures to protect human health during the pandemic,” he added. “But clean air and water are critical to human health. The people of this province have a right to a say on government decisions that affect their well-being, their family’s well-being, and the well-being of their community.

“Protecting Ontarians against COVID-19 by taking a swipe at the environment is counterproductive and completely wrong-headed.”

For more information: Warren (Smokey) Thomas, 613-329-1931