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Ford government endangers gains on water quality.

June 24, 2021

Published in the Hamilton Spectator, June 28, 2021.

A defining feature of Ford government has been its dismantling of the province’s frameworks for environmental protection in the name of ‘cutting red tape.’ The process began almost immediately upon the government’s taking office three years ago, and has continued, and in some cases accelerated, under the cover of the COVID-19 pandemic.

In the last few weeks the government’s focus has shifted to the province’s structures for protecting water quality. On June 11, a series of regulations that set the limits for direct discharges of conventional and toxic pollutants to Ontario's lakes and rivers for nine major industrial sectors in Ontario were repealed.

These rules were first adopted in the mid-1990s under the umbrella the province’s Municipal-Industrial Strategy for Abatement (MISA). The program, covering sectors like pulp and paper, iron and steel, metal casting, chemicals, and mining, set sector-wide standards for the major industrial sources of water pollution. This meant that all facilities in a sector had to comply with the same standards in terms of what they could release into Ontario’s waterways. The standards were set on the basis of the best available control technologies available at the time.

The program was intended to replace the approach that the province had employed since the 1950s of negotiating pollution limits on a facility-by-facility basis.  That system was widely acknowledged as unfair, with facilities in the same sector being subject to widely different standards, and ultimately ineffective in controlling pollution. It was under that system that the Grassy Narrows mercury contamination disaster occurred on the English-Wabigoon River system in the 1960s and 70s.  The system’s failures were one of the drivers of international action to control industrial pollution of the Great Lakes.

The sector-wide model embedded in the MISA regulations was consistent with the approach taken by the US Environmental Protection Agency under the US Clean Water Act. The regulations themselves were seen as important steps in the implementation of the Canada-US Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement, and contributed to significant improvements in water quality in the lakes, particularly in the Areas of Concern, like Hamilton Harbour, identified under the agreement.

The most significant weakness in the regulations was that their pollution limits and reporting requirements had not been updated from the time of their adoption. The provincial Environmental Commissioner's office had repeatedly called for the strengthening of the standards incorporated into the regulations.

Instead of strengthening the rules, the Ford government has disposed of them completely. The province’s moves leave the province with no sectoral standards for industrial water pollution, effectively returning the province to the failed model of half a century ago of negotiating facility-by-facility requirements.

The Ford government’s dismantling of the province’s framework to protect water quality didn’t stop with the repeal of the MISA regulations. While the MISA regulations dealt with industrial sources of pollution discharging directly into waterways, other, more dispersed sources are also important threats water quality. Runoff from agricultural operations, in the form of fertilizers and manure, have been identified as a major factor in the return of algae blooms to Lake Erie, and as threats to the integrity of other water bodies, like Lake Simcoe. Agricultural runoff can also introduce pathogens into drinking water supplies, as it did infamously in the case of the Walkerton water disaster.

The province adopted a Nutrient Management Act in the aftermath of Walkerton. Although never very strong, the legislation did require farms and other agricultural operations to develop and update nutrient management plans, to ensure that their runoff did not harm water quality or threaten drinking water supplies. In 2019 the Ford government removed the requirement that nutrient management plans be updated at least every five years, regardless of how conditions or farm operations might change.  Further changes proposed a few days after the repeal of the MISA regulations would eliminate the requirement for regular updating of the nutrient management training for farm operators.

The combined impact of the province’s moves is to undermine what have been core components of the province’s framework for protecting water quality, and ultimately, the quality of the sources of the drinking water supplied to Ontario residents.

Regulatory regimes in areas like public health, safety and the environment are preventative - they are designed to head off disasters before they happen. The consequences of their dismantling may not be immediately visible. Rather the effects may be felt years down the road. The effects of the changes to the drinking water oversight regime made at the height of Mike Harris's 'common sense revolution' were not evident until five years later in the Walkerton disaster.

The Ford government’s moves around water quality lay the groundwork for moving backwards in an area where the province had made significant progress over the past three decades. The long-term costs to Ontario residents could far exceed the short-term savings in reduced ‘red tape’ for some of Ontario’s largest sources of water pollution.


Mark Winfield is a Professor of Environmental Urban and Environmental Change at York University. He is the author of Blue-Green Province: The Environment and the Political Economy of Ontario (UBC Press 2012), which includes a detailed history of the MISA program.