There’s an old saying: “What they don’t know won’t hurt them.”
That seems to be the mindset of Environment Canada and its reluctance to make public sensitive information about health matters when it comes to industries breaking the laws. The government is being hush-hush about those smokestacks next door, charges a report released Monday by environment lawyers with Ecojustice.
The group, a highly respected charitable organization comprised of experts dedicated to defending citizens’ rights to a healthy environment, further concludes the feds are dragging their feet in cracking down on environmental crime.
And it sings praises of the system in the United States, which has a website concerned citizens can consult for full details about smokestacks in their neighbourhood.
But for the average layperson in Canada, it’s an insurmountable task to obtain similar sensitive information, says Ecojustice.
According to Canadian Press reporter Heather Scoffield covering the report: “In Canada, it takes a law office, a team of 10 law students and two years of combing through reams of paper to find the answer. And even then, it’s not complete.”
That’s what Ecojustice faced in compiling its assessment on Ottawa’s record of cracking down on environmental crime. The group also found the same censorship rules apply to the Fisheries Act, the Species at Risk Act and other federal legislation and regulations.
“At present, only partial and piecemeal information regarding the federal government’s enforcement of environmental laws is made available to Canadians through annual reports, enforcement notifications and news releases,” the report says.
And that’s despite numerous complaints from the auditor general and information commissioner, chastising Environment Canada’s reluctance to make key information public in a timely manner, the report adds.
Ecojustice’s report gives rise to a fair question: Who is Environment Canada really protecting, industry or the health of Canadians?
One would think if Environment Canada increased enforcement, a similar increase in environmental investigations would be reflected. But that’s not the case. The number of investigations have remained stable at about 5,000 a year since 2004, while the number of enforcement officers under the Canadian Environmental Protection Act more than doubled in less than 10 years to 188 in 2009 from 90 in 2000.
Further, the number of charges and convictions under the CEPA have remained stagnant despite the doubling of enviro-cops. Environment Canada might argue it’s the result of its tough stand. Then why double enforcement officers to police a clampdown when laws are supposedly bringing industry in line?
And despite the beefed-up forces, prosecutions against offenders have been dismal, and deterrence has amounted to a slap on the wrist, Ecojustice concludes. Prosecutions are rare, and convictions even rarer.
Only twice in the past decade has the number of convictions reached double digits in a single year.
And when there are convictions — only 23 in the last three years — offenders face an average fine of $10,524, which hardly serves as a deterrent.
“The total number of prosecutions and convictions is extremely small in relation to the number of inspections, warnings and investigations,” says the report.
And given the low penalties, is it possible industries could toss caution to the wind, take a chance in breaking the law, and settle for a fine that amounts to pocket change if caught? The temptation is there.
“Since the credible threat of a successful prosecution is crucial in achieving a deterrent effect, these low absolute numbers (and the small fines accompanying convictions) give rise to concern regarding the overall effectiveness of the CEPA enforcement regime,” says Ecojustice.
In the U.S., information on environmental enforcement is gathered on a single portal. It’s presented consistently, and it’s searchable. In Canada, such a luxury doesn’t exist, and its citizens are played for fools by a government believing what they don’t know won’t hurt them.
Rick Zemanek is an Advocate editor.