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Environmental approvals in Ontario are still too slow, too opaque, and too hostile to innovative technologies. In 2007, the Environmental Commissioner noted that our cumbersome environmental approval process was hurting both the economy and our environment; business has been complaining about this for years. Finally, Ontario is going to do something about it.

The Ontario Ministry of the Environment has released its long-awaited “Proposed Framework for Modernizing Environmental Approvals” on the Environmental Registry. (Search number 010-9143) for one month of public comment. The Framework is a white paper, sketching out a plan

for major changes to the Environmental Protection Act, the Ontario Water Resources Act, and other environmental statutes that require individuals and businesses to get permits.

The basic elements of the Framework should not be controversial, and are likely to have strong business support, although some of the details will cause concern. Fundamentally, the Framework will set different rules for low risk activities than for high-risk ones, starting in late 2012. All existing approvals will eventually be transitioned into the new system.

For Low Risk Activities: Permit by rule

Ontario now issues about 6000 environmental permits a year, for everything from huge factories and major landfills to minor upgrades in a restaurant kitchen exhaust. Many, perhaps half of these, are for low risk, routine, predictable activities where individualized Ministry review provides little benefit. These activities would cease to require air, water, and waste certificates of approval.

Instead, the organization would “register” all its lower risk activities on a public website. The registration would include key details about each activity, depending on its perceived risk; most of these details would be available to the public. Technical documents may have to be submitted, certified by a person with relevant technical knowledge.

An “accountable person”, the highest-ranking employee at the facility with management responsibilities, would have to periodically declare that the registration is accurate and complete, and would be responsible for ensuring that the organization complies with it.

Registration would be effective immediately, and would trigger the application of standard rules. The organization may be required to pay fees, file financial assurance, file reports, ensure training, operate within defined parameters, monitor emissions, etc. — all the terms that can now be imposed as a condition of a certificate of approval.

For High Risk Activities: certificates of approval that are more demanding and more public

Higher risk activities will still need individual certificates of approval. However, these approvals will be site-wide and multimedia, covering air, waste, and water in a single approval. In some cases, multiple sites will be covered by a single approval. These approvals may allow operational flexibility, as in a current “comprehensive approval”, but may have mandatory periodic updates. Under today’s system, some old approvals can continue in effect for decades without review.

Proposed regulations would set mandatory submission and quality requirements, since the Ministry now receives a large number of poor quality or incomplete applications. There would be an incentive to file applications online; for example, they may benefit from quicker service guarantees, promises to process the application within a specified time.

Applications will have to be signed off, both by an appropriate technical expert, and by the applicant’s “accountable person”. Most portions of an application, and of the resulting approval, will be accessible to the public.

For most businesses that need new or amended approvals, these changes probably cannot come quickly enough. But the transition period could be painful. Comments can be submitted until April 2.

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