Federal departments failing on environmental commitments

Ottawa, Canada (GLOBE-Net) - Federal government departments have made unsatisfactory progress on previously reported issues or recommendations in nine of fourteen areas audited, says the Commissioner of the Environment and Sustainable Development, Ron Thompson, in his Status Report tabled last week in the House of Commons.

Although there was praise for the handling of toxic chemical management and site remediation, Sustainable Development Commissioner Ron Thompson said there was unsatisfactory progress in such areas as water pollution in the Great Lakes, endangered species, federal operations, and in meeting Canada’s international environmental commitments.

The Status Report follows up on the government’s progress in addressing issues identified in previous reports from the Susrainable Development Commissioner, part of the Auditor General’s Office. In most cases, government departments have agreed with the recommendations in the original audits and have undertaken commitments to take action.

The Status Report notes that the government has made satisfactory progress in five areas:

  • Assessing priority chemicals,

  • Managing pesticide safety and accessibility,

  • Assessing and cleaning up federal contaminated sites,

  • Identifying and assessing the risks of military dumpsites, and

  • Proposing changes to legislation regarding nuclear operators’ liability insurance.

In the remaining categories, the government received unsatisfactory reviews.

The Great Lakes

In last October’s Speech from the Throne, the Great Lakes were identified as a significant environmental concern.  However the government failed to set aside new money towards remediating and protecting the Great Lakes in its 2008 budget released last week.

Federal authorities identified 17 severely degraded areas of concern over 20 years ago in the Great Lakes that were plagued by deformed fish, beach closings and drinking water problems. Only two of the sites in the basin have been cleaned up - the latest in 2003.

"I’m left sort of baffled by what the government’s thinking is on this," said Aaron Freeman, director of policy for Environmental Defence. "They know that it’s a problem, it’s been identified for them, and yet there’s no commitment to back up their clearly stated promise (from the throne speech) in the budget."

Wildlife Conservation

The government has frequently asserted that sound management of Canada’s natural resources and biodiversity is critical to ensuring our social, economic, and environmental well-being. However, according to Environment Canada, the wildlife habitat that contributes to Canada’s natural heritage is being lost. Habitat loss and degradation is now the single greatest threat to flora and fauna in Canada.

"According to the government, degradation and loss of habitat is the major threat to plants and animals in Canada," Thompson said. "The government committed to address these issues years ago, but it has yet to follow through on those commitments."

The Species at Risk Act is one of the legal cornerstones for the protection of wildlife in Canada, helping to conserve and protect species and ultimately biodiversity.  Under the Act, the Minister of the Environment and the Minister of Fisheries and Oceans are responsible for preparing recovery strategies, action plans, and management plans for species at risk for which they are the competent minister.

The report found that the government has only published recovery plans for 55 of 228 species indentified under the Act.  The plans for all 228 were required by June 2007. Environment Canada is responsible for managing 51 national wildlife areas and 92 migratory bird sanctuaries. These sites are established under legislation to protect significant habitat for wildlife, including species at risk and migratory birds.

The report stated that Environment Canada has identified specific threats to each of its protected areas, but has not assessed whether conditions are improving or deteriorating at the sites, nor used the information collected to address threats on a priority basis.

The audit also found that most protected areas still lack up-to-date management plans and does not comprehensively monitor or regularly report on the condition and management of its network of protected areas. According to its own analyses, Environment Canada has allocated insufficient human and financial resources to address urgent needs or activities related to the maintenance of sites and enforcement of regulations in protected areas.

Invasive Species

In its 1995 Canadian Biodiversity Strategy, the federal government committed to prevent, control, or eradicate invasive species that threaten Canada’s ecosystems and economy, including aquatic invasive species. Aquatic invasive species can fundamentally change the environment they occupy and, by extension, affect its economic value in terms of beneficial uses.

Sea lampreys, for example, have had a serious negative impact on the Great Lakes fishery. Their aggressive behaviour is contributing significantly to the collapse of fish species such as trout, walleye, and sturgeon. In 2002, Ontario Power Generation estimated that, as a direct result of the presence of the invasive zebra mussels, operating costs increased by $500,000 and $1 million per year at its Darlington and Pickering nuclear stations.

To date, notes the Commission’s report,  the government has failed to assess economic and social risks, and priorities and objectives for prevention, control, or eradication of risks posed by existing aquatic invasive species.

In addition, Fisheries and Oceans Canada does not have plans or mechanisms in place for early detection of, or rapid response to, aquatic invasive species and is therefore unprepared to prevent, control, or eradicate potential new aquatic invasive species.

Strategic Environmental Assessment

Strategic environmental assessment (SEA) has been required of federal departments and agencies for the past 17 years as the main tool for considering the impact that proposed policies, plans, and programs could have on the environment. Identifying these impacts allows decision makers to anticipate, prevent, or mitigate potential negative environmental consequences and to enhance any environmental benefits.

The report notes as important as it is to address environmental challenges that exist today, it is equally important to anticipate new challenges and new opportunities that may arise tomorrow. This would help the government get ahead of the curve and develop policies and programs to mitigate the challenges and exploit the opportunities.

However, notes the report "Strategic environmental assessments and sustainable development strategies are management tools put in place to get departments and agencies to do this. Unfortunately, both tools are broken; they need to be fixed."

Most government departments were found not to be preparing public statements of their detailed environmental assessments as required.  When public statements were released, they were found to be difficult to locate and lacking pertinent information that environmental factors have been integrated into the decision-making process.

Greening Operations

The federal government has committed itself to being a leader in promoting environmental and sustainable development practices in Canada. I making this commitment the government declared that it could significantly reduce the environmental impact of its operations by purchasing goods that are energy-efficient, or that are produced without using or releasing toxic substances, or that can be recycled. As one of Canada’s largest employers, purchasers, and landowners, its spending on green products and services can also stimulate innovation and increase their availability.

The federal government first introduced its strategy to ‘green’ operations, policies, and programs in 1995.  According to the report, the government has made unsatisfactory progress in achieving this goal since 2004 and is failing to lead by example as promised.

Do as I say not as I do

The government needs to provide greater leadership in setting priorities, clearly linking proposed actions and expected results to specific restoration criteria in each area of concern, said the report. "It has not set timelines for the completion of all priority actions, not established cost-sharing arrangements with responsible partners, and not secured the resources needed to implement required actions.

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