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Small change to Ontario’s 50-year-old EA process will have a huge impact: Crombie

Angela Gismondi
Small change to Ontario’s 50-year-old EA process will have a huge impact: Crombie

The provincial government is making changes to streamline and simplify the 50-year-old environmental assessment (EA) processes for low-risk infrastructure projects and the Ontario Sewer and Watermain Construction Association (OSWCA) is hoping it helps get projects built faster.

“This is the very small policy change that is going to have a huge impact for our members,” said Steven Crombie, director of government and public affairs with OSWCA. “This is going to have a direct impact on construction season.”

Andrea Khanjin, minister of the environment, conservation and parks, made the announcement Feb. 16. One of the biggest changes is moving to a project list approach.

“Over the past several years we’ve consulted extensively with municipalities, Indigenous communities and key stakeholders of proposals to move more projects to a streamlined environmental process,” she said.

“We are now moving forward with these changes that will save time and money by adopting a project list approach…which will specify which types of infrastructure projects require the highest level of environmental assessment while allowing more projects to follow a streamlined process.”

The EA process has had an impact on OSWCA members and their projects.

“We had one of our members in Ottawa who was working on a new home development project and they were just waiting for this MECP (Ministry of the Environment, Conservation and Parks) environmental assessment for low-risk municipal infrastructure,” Crombie explained. “The City of Ottawa had approved the design and construction, but it needed to go to the province for a secondary rubber stamp approval.

“We’ve been hearing horror stories where projects are being held up to the point that they have uncertainty onsite as to when they will be able to continue to put shovels in the ground and where crews are being laid off because they just cannot proceed to the next phase of the project until they receive this approval from the province,” he added.


Changes are already in effect

The changes came into effect Feb. 22 and the goal is to help get projects built years sooner.

“More projects such as new highways, railways and electricity transmission lines…could see up to four years taken off their building timelines, which is a massive improvement,” said Khanjin at the announcement.

“The project list approach is a shift from the previous focus on who is undertaking the project to what the project is and its potential for environmental effects. Using a project list approach will bring us in line with a number of other jurisdictions, including our federal government, Quebec and British Columbia, who all follow a similar approach.”

Crombie said the changes will help get rid of some of the redundancies in the EA process.

“There certainly was a redundancy in the approvals process whereby local authorities would provide approval for a local project and then a ministry bureaucrat would then have to provide a secondary level of approval,” said Crombie. “The ministry is effectively removing that secondary level of approval.”

The low-risk application, he said, may be sitting underneath another application which is more complicated and needs a more comprehensive assessment.

“It’s just delaying a project that really is low risk and ready to go,” he pointed out.

“If your application to install a six-inch watermain in a greenfield development is sitting under the application of a biohazard waste facility that is being proposed in downtown Toronto, they need to go through that application before they get to the next low-risk application. Just by virtue of where your application was in the cue, you could be delayed weeks or even months.”

He added, “It’s really about allocating resources appropriately for businesses for government agencies and getting the bureaucrats to focus on that high-risk infrastructure that deserves comprehensive environmental assessments.”


How it works

Crombie explained how it would work for a contractor building a low-risk municipal infrastructure or housing development and installing the sewer, watermain and stormwater infrastructure.

“The developer now simply has to notify the ministry as part of a project list, rather than submitting an application for approval and waiting for a bureaucrat on the other end to provide that approval,” he said.

“Waiting for that approval has proven to be lengthy and uncertain so contractors aren’t sure when the next phase of their project can actually begin. Now as soon as you provide that notice to the ministry you can continue on with the next phase of your project.”

The Ontario government is also beginning consultation on a new streamlined process for certain municipal water, shoreline and sewage system projects which would help accelerate project planning by limiting the process to six months from 18 months or more.

The time changes could be achieved by providing a regulated timeline. Under the current process there is no time limit.

Furthermore, the government is considering a minor change to the Environmental Assessment Act that would make it clearer for municipalities, provincial ministries and agencies that expropriation is one of the ways property can be acquired for a project before the EA process is completed.

Follow the author on Twitter @DCN_Angela.

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