Ontario SWAT Team To Tackle Polluters

By Neville Judd

TORONTO, Ontario, Canada, September 22, 2000 (ENS) - Determined to restore public confidence in its ability to protect public health and the environment, Ontario's provincial government has introduced Canada's toughest fines and longest jail terms for repeat polluters.

Newman

Ontario Environment Minister Dan Newman. (Photo courtesy Ontario Environment Ministry)
The measures are part of legislation proposed yesterday by Ontario Environment Minister Dan Newman and include the creation of a new ministry department dubbed "the SWAT team," focused solely on enforcing the new laws.

But the measures have been criticized for falling short of original plans that would have allowed for more staff and a bigger budget.

The province has been under assault on several environmental fronts. In May, E. coli bacteria distributed by a water supply utility killed six people and infected 2,000 others in Walkerton, a town of 5,000 people 90 miles west of Toronto.

In the same month the Toronto Board of Health announced that air pollution was responsible for 1,000 premature deaths in the city annually, hospitalizing another 5,500 people.

In July the province's Environmental Commissioner Gord Miller linked the Walkerton deaths to Ontario's "confused patchwork" of laws and policies on groundwater.

Newman described the SWAT team as a "highly mobile compliance, inspection and enforcement unit," made up of 65 members including "highly-trained inspectors and new investigators."

It will focus on finding companies or individuals that systematically or flagrantly defy environmental laws, and it is expected to carry out more than 1,000 inspections each year.

Miller

Ontario Environmental Commissioner Gord Miller. (Photo courtesy Ontario Environmental Commission)
Opposition politicians and groups like the Toronto Environmental Alliance were disappointed by the measures.

Alliance smog and climate change campaigner Keith Stewart said SWAT staffing was less than half the number originally proposed in a ministry document presented to cabinet in March and leaked to the media in June.

That earlier report recommended the government hire a minimum of 138 new staff to form an environmental SWAT team with a C$14.6 million (US$9.8 million) budget.

The budget announced yesterday is C$10 million in the first year and $8 million each subsequent year.

"The government is still not taking this issue seriously," Stewart told ENS. "They have gutted our environmental laws and they're not enforcing the ones we have. Yesterday's announcement is more to do with improving their public image than tackling polluters."

The minister's spokeswoman Lynne Hamilton defended the new measures and denied the existence of a ministry document and said no such proposals ever made it to cabinet. "The NDP [opposition] produced a document in a brown envelope and called it a leaked document."

Hamilton said the SWAT team should be operational by late fall. It will be made up of inspectors, investigators, environmental engineers, environmental program analysts, scientists and a laboratory technician.

smog

Toronto's famous landmark, the CN Tower, is barely visible during heavy smog. (Photo courtesy Environment Canada)
In addition to the SWAT team, Newman announced new penalties for polluters.

The proposed penalties will:

The penalties will apply to the most serious offences under Ontario's Drinking Water Protection Regulation, specifically failure to report samples that exceed standards and failure to use minimum levels of treatment.

"We will not tolerate companies or individuals who intentionally break Ontario's environmental laws," said Newman. "Environmental offenders will no longer benefit from their actions at the expense of law abiding companies and citizens."