Canadian Underwriter

Ontario government has ‘no plan or fund in place’ to clean up 288 polluted sites: Auditor General

December 3, 2015   by Canadian Underwriter

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The Ontario government has an estimated liability of nearly $1.8 billion for cleaning up sites affected by hazardous waste or pollution, but there is no plan or fund in place for cleaning up those contaminated sites, Auditor General Bonnie Lysyk stated in her 2015 Annual Report released Wednesday.

The Province of Ontario is responsible for some contaminated sites, the Auditor General noted in the 2015 annual report

The public should also have access to information on contaminated sites for which the province has liability, she added.

There are several ways in which the provincial government could become responsible for a contaminated site.

“Although some of the Province’s sites became contaminated due to its own operations, in many other cases the Province has assumed responsibility for sites where contamination was caused by other third parties,” the Auditor General’s annual report states. “The Province may have had to assume responsibility because the original third-party owner or operator became insolvent, ceased to exist, or had insufficient funds to remedy environmental damage that had occurred on the property. The Province may also implicitly accept responsibility for contaminated sites by taking remedial action in emergency situations.”

Some of these areas include sites where owners cannot be located or are unwilling or unable to remediate.

“Under the Environmental Protection Act, the Province has the right to seek compensation from a third party for any costs it incurred for the prevention or remediation of damage to the environment caused by that third party,” the Auditor General noted in the report. “This loss or damage could be from a chemical spill or other contaminating event, and would include all reasonable costs incurred by the Province when cleaning up a contaminated site not properly cleaned up by the third party. However, exercising this right can be difficult or impossible for the Province if a contaminated site’s owner is insolvent or if the business in question is no longer operating. “

Some contaminated sites were formerly occupied by a corporation which was has been dissolved.

The total liability for remediating contaminated sites for which the province is responsible “is estimated to be $1.792 billion as at March 31, 2015,” for 288 sites.

Nearly two-thirds of that, or $1.174 billion, is from 47 former mineral extraction sites. These are where mining or associated activities (such as fuel storage, fuel handling, waste deposits) caused contamination of heavy metals, petroleum hydrocarbons and other pollutants.

Fourteen per cent, or $250 million, of the liability comes from 62 former office, commercial or industrial sites.

Several departments are responsible. For example, the Ministry of Economic Development, Employment and Infrastructure buys, manages, and sells provincially owned real estate, the Auditor General noted. That department also manages properties forfeited to the province. The Ministry of Northern Development and Mines “addresses environmental and public safety issues associated with abandoned mines,” according to the report. The Ministry of Transportation is responsible for contaminated sites along all provincially owned highways and roads, while the Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing is responsible for public housing sites where the Ontario government has agreed to pay for remediation. The Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry is responsible for contaminated sites on Crown land, plus “a number of dams that are used to enclose mine waste.”

The Ministry of Environment and Climate Change regulates environmental mitigation or remediation efforts, primarily through the Environmental Protection Act and the Ontario Water Resources Act.

The Office of the Auditor General “found that the government has no plan or fund in place for cleaning up its contaminated sites,” according to the 2015 Annual Report. “The government should firmly commit to remediating its contaminated sites in a timely manner, and this means ensuring that ministries and government agencies have access to sufficient funds to clean up the sites they are responsible for.”

Therefore, the Auditor General is recommending that the “stakeholder ministries” co-ordinate the development of a long-term plan for remediating the sites. That plan “should incorporate both an annual and a long-term funding strategy,” the Auditor General contended.

The government also “needs to implement a government-wide process for prioritizing high-risk contaminated sites for remediation,” the Auditor General added.

The report also found the province has no centralized inventory.

In August 2012, the province established the “Inter-ministerial Contaminated Sites Assistant Deputy Ministers’ Steering Committee.”

In its budget for the 2011-12 fiscal year, the province had “announced its intention to co-ordinate its environmental cleanup activities across the province,” the Auditor General noted.

“A key outcome expected from this co-ordinated approach was the development and adoption of a single risk prioritization model for ranking all of Ontario’s contaminated sites,” Auditor General noted in the 2015 annual report. “As of spring 2015, the model was substantially complete and awaiting approval; however, the party responsible for approval has yet to be determined.”

A single database “would allow the relative risks associated with all provincial sites to be continually compared and prioritized, providing assurance to the Treasury Board that decisions about the ministries’ funding requests to remediate contamination were based on government-wide priorities,” the Auditor General stated.

The public should “have access to information on contaminated sites for which the government has recorded a liability,” according to the report.

Lysyk is recommending that the province “designate a central unit or ministry group with overall responsibility for managing contaminated sites. The ADM steering committee “should be reconvened to perform an oversight role until this function or co-ordinated team is established,” she added.