Deputy environmental commissioner of Ontario Ellen Schwartzel spoke to an audience of close to 100 people at Aboyne Hall on Dec. 1.
The evening event was arranged by concerned citizens groups Save Our Water and Wellington Water Watchers in light of Nestle Water Canada’s proposal to purchase a well on Middlebrook Road, near the Elora Gorge.
Schwartzel explained the purpose of the Environmental Bill of Rights (EBR) and the way citizens can use the law.
“The Environmental Bill of Rights has been around now since (19)94 and at that time there was not just environmental matters but generally there was this sense that citizens wanted to be more engaged in government decisions and that there was this principle that decision making would get better as a consequence,” she said.
Schwartzel said too few people know about their procedural rights under the EBR and the environmental commissioner’s office is trying to increase awareness.
“The tools are really there to make sure you have your say on decisions that the government makes and to be proactive, ask for new policies, new laws,” she explained. “If you see a law being broken, you have the right to request that that be investigated.”
The key elements in the EBR she outlined include: the environmental registry, application for review and investigation, the appeals process and the research and reports provided by the Environmental Commissioner of Ontario.
Schwartzel made it clear that about one in five cases of third party appeals are accepted for review by the environmental review tribunal because the applicant needs to be granted permission to appeal.
“It’s a two-part test, you first need to be able to demonstrate that no reasonable person would have made that decision and that’s often called the insane director requirement and the other is that you have to be able to demonstrate that decision could result in significant environmental harm,” she explained. “The examples are most frequently issues that relate to the Ministry of Environment and Climate Change and water taking permits are high on that list, also air approvals and waste approvals and a few sewage approvals.”
She explained that when people are given leave to appeal it often moves to mediation opportunities rather than a hearing because the citizen now has leverage.
“You have that legal power,” she said. “And so there is this mediation opportunity that you’ve created for yourself and so often that means that you can add conditions to the approval.”
Schwartzel reviewed key findings in the Commissioner’s latest annual report called Small Things Matter.
“The issue that really garnered the most attention in the media was the issue of water taking and water charges,” she said indicating that this wasn’t the first year the issue was addressed.
“The point was that really only a very small percentage of water takers with permits are paying a fee at all and that there’s many, many sectors that are paying nothing at all,” she said. “The agricultural sector, the sand and gravel industry, golf courses, municipalities, to name a few, are paying nothing for the water that they take.”
She said it’s a concern because the province is managing water quantity but it doesn’t receive sufficient funds to pay for the service.
“Those who pay nothing for the water … there’s no incentive for them to conserve.”
The report points out the use of water budgets, attention to ecosystem needs and paying attention to how much water permitted users are actually taking could help with water management practices.