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big fallsIn the summer of 1989, Todd Latham bounced into my office to invite me to write for his new magazine (Hazardous Materials Management Magazine). After many years of government service, I was launching a new career outside the Ministries of Environment and of Energy, and I gratefully said “yes!”  I haven’t missed an issue since. Thank you, faithful readers.
Other than Todd giving up his ponytail, what’s different twenty years later? Here’s a quick look at what’s better, what’s worse, and what hasn’t really changed.

Regulators and regulation

La plus ça change, la plus c’est la même chose. Despite some exciting swings and roundabouts along the way, there’s much about 2009 that isn’t much different from 1989. In 1989 and the early 1990s, environmental ministries and environmental regulation were on an upswing of popularity and importance, and definitely feeling their oats. Disasters such as the tire fire in Hagersville and the PCB fire in St. Basil-le-Grand fuelled public demands for more and better command, control and enforcement. George Crowe was the first Canadian to go to jail for an environmental offence, and the successful prosecution of Bata Shoes and its directors sent shock waves through corporate Canada. Waste disposal costs skyrocketed, generating an epidemic of illegal dumping. Banks were shocked to discover that they could incur environmental costs for contaminated sites, and swiftly changed their lending practices, causing many unintended consequences. The Ontario Ministry of the Environment proudly argued that fairness was an improper consideration in imposing environmental liabilities. Environmental compliance and waste disposal costs became significant. We didn’t know enough to be terrified of climate change.
The backlash came in the mid 1990s, when environmental regulators were savaged by different versions of the Common Sense Revolution. Deficit fighting became the order of the day. Environmental ministries lost their momentum and up to half of their staff and budgets. Conservatives slashed away at “red tape” a.k.a. environmental regulations. There had to be better alternatives to the expense and rigidity of “command and control.”  Surely “voluntary compliance” could do the job, now that government no longer had a monopoly on environmental expertise! Even further cuts were threatened, when salvation came to Canadian environmental regulators from a tiny part of their mandates: drinking water tragedies in Walkerton and North Battleford.
In the political firestorm that followed, environmental ministries were rebuilt and statutes and regulations multiplied. Command, control and enforcement came roaring back; fines and charges soared. A 1989 regulator would feel quite at home in today’s ministries, with at least one difference: in 1989, environmental regulators generally treated municipalities as their colleagues; now they often treat them as targets.
Some current environmental issues go even further back but still feel the same. In the 1970s, when I worked at the brand new Ministry of Energy, we worried about energy consumption because of the oil price shock and the nascent power of the Arab Middle East. Oil created tensions between Alberta and central Canada. Today, in the middle of a third oil war, we worry about oil in terms of energy security, peak oil and climate change. Alberta and central Canada take opposite positions on climate change and the oil sands, and energy conservation is back in style.

What is better?

We do have clear improvements in terms of environmental management. Canada now has a wealth of skilled and knowledgeable environmental professionals, both within and outside government. Most significant Canadian organizations now know quite a bit about their environmental impacts and how to manage them. Most make some effort to find out whether they are in compliance, and to achieve it. Some have documented environmental management systems, and strive for continuous improvement. The federal and provincial environmental commissioners help to keep governments honest and at least partially attentive to environmental values.
The process of decision-making is better. Public knowledge about environmental rights, emissions and decision-making is at an all time high, thanks to Freedom of Information laws, the Internet, and environmental registries. Public consultation and participation has improved. Multi-stakeholder groups have become a common, and effective way for non-governmental organizations to negotiate directly with businesses, sometimes with excellent results. The courts have become more sophisticated about environmental issues, and more interested in them; no longer do judges groan out loud about “the frogs and logs brigade.”
Technology and the environmental industry have improved, though we are not the world leaders we might have been. Aboriginal issues play a large and increasing role.
For most businesses, federal and international environmental requirements are more meaningful than they were in 1989. Internationally, there is the North American Agreement on Environmental Cooperation, the Montreal Convention on Ozone Depleting Substances, the Basel Convention on Transboundary Movement of Hazardous Waste, the Kyoto Protocol on climate change. Nationally, we have the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act, the Canadian Environmental Protection Act, 1999, the Species at Risk Act, the National Pollutant Release Inventory, the New Substance Notification Regulations (though no meaningful progress on climate change). The provinces have been churning out new environmental laws at a furious pace, on everything from drinking water (e.g. Manitoba’s Drinking Water Safety Act), source water protection (e.g. Quebec’s Water Resources Preservation Act), contaminated sites (e.g. B.C.’s Waste Management Act), pesticides,  and climate change. And let’s not forget Ontario’s  new Green Energy Act! Municipal governments are also taking a stronger role.
Regulations are a little more flexible than they used to be. Today, we use more market instruments such as emissions trading. Administrative penalties are quicker and surer than prosecution in responding to spills. The mere embarrassment of being named a “top polluter” under NPRI has provoked some companies to take action. Governments show more awareness of their limits by drawing on “voluntary” codes (such as CSA documents) when regulating highly technical areas.
In terms of environmental quality, progress has been decidedly mixed. Drinking water is protected more much aggressively than in 1989, though this did not have much effect on the actual quality of drinking water in most municipal systems.
Surface water is a little cleaner than it used to be. Municipal sewage treatment is improving, although less so on our coasts. Pulp and paper effluent regulations have reduced the filth flowing from paper plants. The Great Lakes are cleaner than they were a generation ago, though they now face major threats from invasive foreign species and climate change. Groundwater is starting to receive some long-overdue attention and protection, although the major result may be to push municipalities to surface water sources.
In terms of air, sulphur dioxide emissions are down, but nitrous oxides aren’t. Benzene levels and mercury emissions have been slashed; but ground-level ozone is about the same. U.S.-driven auto emission laws have cut per-vehicle emissions by more than 75 per cent since 1971, but smog is about the same: we now buy more and bigger cars and drive them farther. Greenhouse gas emissions are up substantially.
Hazardous waste is better managed, but we make more waste than ever. We have created new parks, but more Crown land has been logged, settled or otherwise disturbed.

So, how have we done?

Environment Canada stopped updating its national “indicators” meter when the current government was elected. My guess is that we’re still running pretty hard to have results that look like standing still. And it’s worth noting that most of the successes of the last 20 years have been driven by good old-fashioned command and control regulation, backed up by vigorous enforcement. Let’s pay attention to what works, and do more of it in the next 20 years!

Reprinted with permission from Hazardous Materials Management Magazine

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