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McGuinty's broken promise on toxic chemicals

Apr 18, 2009 04:30 AM


Premier Dalton McGuinty has broken another election campaign promise, this time to reduce the amount of poisonous chemicals industries put into our environment.

Still, he's being praised by many who've campaigned for years to have these emissions controlled.

In 2007, the premier pledged a re-elected Liberal government would "tackle the environmental causes of illness, by ... introducing a tough new toxic reduction law that requires polluting companies to reduce their emissions."

The result came last week in the proposed Toxics Reduction Act. The legislation would compel large companies to record and report their use of chemicals that cause cancer and other deadly diseases, and force them to prepare plans to reduce that usage.

It doesn't, however, require them to act on those plans – which would fulfill the campaign promise. That part is voluntary. Nor is there a target for reducing emissions, which include more than 2.7 million kilograms of carcinogens spewed into the air each year.

The Liberals have diluted their promise into a "commitment to ... protect Ontarians from toxic chemicals in the air, water, land and consumer products."

Even so, advocates from environment groups, public health, cancer prevention and workplace safety have expressed their delight.

They note the legislation, the first of its kind in Canada, outshines a weak federal law that requires the biggest polluters report some toxic emissions, but without mandating they do anything about them.

The legislation also supports Toronto's new bylaw that will make thousands of dry cleaners, auto body shops and other small businesses report their use and emissions of toxic chemicals. They will be eligible for some of the $24 million the province will offer to help companies develop their plans.

The main hope for Ontario's policy stems from Massachusetts, which has had a similar law for two decades. It, too, made action voluntary – a compromise that appeased the business community. And, it was argued, once companies realized how much money they'd save by cutting chemicals – through changing processes, increasing efficiency and finding alternatives – they'd happily put their plans into effect.

Toxic chemical use there has dropped by about half since 1990. Good environmental practice has turned out to be good business.

But Ontario's law has weak spots.

First, like many laws, it only empowers the government to act, without setting out the details. The environment ministry must still produce regulations describing which chemicals and facilities will be covered, and how plans will be approved. This won't happen until further consultations. Past experience shows much watering down can happen in that process.

And Ontario appears to be making a key departure from Massachusetts' successful program. The state created, and funds, an independent institute that trains people to advise and work with businesses, link them with experts, and certify their plans. But Ontario is considering assessing plans internally.

Companies will act voluntarily only if they're convinced by a plan that sets out clearly what they can do and, more important, how much money they'll save, says Katrina Miller of the Toronto Environmental Alliance. "That's what sells the company on implementing." External experts would do a better job of plan creation and certification, she says. If the government does it in-house, it won't be as transparent or robust.

What's trumpeted as a triumph could be much less. Given how the government massaged this message and its mediocre performance on other issues – the pesticide "ban," endangered species "protection" and Greenbelt "preservation" among them – it's clearly too soon to celebrate.

Peter Gorrie is the Star's former environment reporter. He can be reached at:[email protected]

As published at: http://www.thestar.com/News/Insight/article/620441

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