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The federal Minister of the Environment today introduced extensive amendments to nine federal environmental laws to increase fines and expand enforcement tools. 

Some of the changes are significant improvements. For example, all federal environmental fines will now be paid into the Environmental Damages Fund, where they will be used for local environmental projects, rather than disappearing into the Consolidated Revenue Fund.  This idea was first suggested 25 years ago, when the Laidlaw Foundation offered to match environmental fines in Ontario and manage the resulting grants. Treasury departments have firmly resisted the concept of giving away environmental fine money ever since; congratulations to Minister Prentice for winning this one. On the other hand, the increased importance of the Environmental Damages Fund means that it needs to become more transparent and professionally managed, not a political slush fund.

Another significant improvement will be the introduction of administrative monetary penalties into federal environmental enforcement. AMPs are already used effectively in provinces such as British Columbia and Ontario, where they are misleadingly called “environmental  penalties” and used primarily for spills.

Better laboratory and analytical support for enforcement will also be to the good.

Other changes are merely cosmetic. Increasing maximum fines is important for some parks and wildlife offences,   but is irrelevant for most pollution offences, where current maximums are already very large. The sentencing guidelines are also unlikely to do much to change current sentencing practices, which already take the same factors into account.

The proposed minimum penalties are likely to do more harm than good, as minimum penalties usually do. It could also be harmful to increase powers and penalties unless Environment Canada significantly improves the management and training of its enforcement officers. In the last several years, Environment Canada has repeatedly used its existing enforcement powers in unfair and disproportionate ways, without giving alleged offenders notice and an opportunity to comply with unclear rules.

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