Changes to Canada’s environmental protection laws in the federal budget implementation bill will offer new tools to “authorize” water pollution, while allowing the government to outsource services to protect the country’s waterways, says Fisheries and Oceans Minister Keith Ashfield.
In a newly-released letter, Ashfield said the existing Fisheries Act, considered to be Canada’s strongest environmental protection law, has “long played an important role in preventing pollution of Canadian waters.” But he suggested it needed to be changed since it doesn’t provide enough options allowing industry to disrupt or contaminate fish habitat.
“There are currently few tools to authorize pollution other than by detailed regulations,” Ashfield wrote in the June 14 letter to Todd Panas, president of the Union of Environment Workers. “For example, the amended Fisheries Act will provide flexibility and establish new tools to authorize deposits of deleterious substances.”
The existing legislation prohibits the harmful alteration, disruption or destruction of fish habitat without a special authorization from the minister that is usually accompanied by requirements to compensate for the damage caused.
While a Toronto-based natural resources company was recently allowed to dump toxic tailings waste from a gold mine into fish habitat near Baker Lake, Nunavut, using a special authorization from the government, another company was forced to go back to the drawing board in November 2010 when former environment minister Jim Prentice refused to authorize its plans to turn Fish Lake in interior B.C. into a tailings dump.
Under the existing law, fish habitat includes spawning areas as well as areas supporting fish food, nearby vegetation, rocks and logs.
Ashfield said the changes were intended to support a shift from managing impacts on fish habitat toward managing threats to fisheries. But critics, including former Conservative fisheries minister Thomas Siddon, have suggested the changes would weaken the law and compromise the minister’s constitutional responsibility to protect fisheries.