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The greening of Ontario
Dalton McGuinty's Liberals are moving fast to spruce up the province's environmental reputation
By Richard Brennan and Caroline Mallan
Toronto Star

The Ontario Liberals are working overtime on painting their government green in an attempt to return Ontario to the days when its environmental reputation was recognized around the world.

But critics say while it's a distinct change from the former Conservative government, many of the measures the Liberals have introduced over the past two months amount to feel-good bluster, rather than concrete improvements.

From the mid-1980s to the early '90s, Ontario's environmental standards for water, air and land were recognized as some of the best in the world. But after the Tories made drastic cuts to grapple with the deficit in 1995, that reputation soon faltered, and Ontario was suddenly being compared with the likes of Mississippi and Texas when it came to the province's environmental record.

The Liberal government spent this week making a string of environmental announcements as part of its "Green Week" among them the hiring of 33 water-quality workers, including 20 inspectors, a year-long freeze on development on a proposed greenbelt area across the Golden Horseshoe, limiting the powers of the developer-friendly Ontario Municipal Board (OMB) and efforts to limit municipal expansion.

And on Thursday, Environment Minister Leona Dombrowsky announced a one-year moratorium on water-taking permits for such things as bottling, aggregate use and other manufacturing that taps into key watersheds. The ban does not affect municipalities drawing water for local use.

"Water bottlers and others who remove water out of a watershed cannot be permitted to just take more and more water," Dombrowsky said in unveiling the move. "We need to fully understand the consequences ... on both the watershed and local water supplies. Nothing is more basic to life - and the quality of life - than an adequate supply of safe and clean water."

Municipal Affairs Minister John Gerretsen struck a similar tone with the freeze on rezoning rural and agricultural land for possible development.

"It is absolutely imperative if we want to do anything about sprawl, gridlock, if we want to do anything about improving the quality of life for people, particularly in the GTA. It is absolutely essential we develop a greenbelt area that ties in between the Oak Ridges Moraine and the Niagara Escarpment," Gerretsen said.

"It is about the environment and the quality of life that people want to enjoy in this area ... we cannot allow the sprawl (of) the last 15 to 20 years to continue," he added.

But critics say the Liberals' sudden fascination with the environment has more to do with deflecting attention from broken campaign promises arising from the $5.6 billion deficit they inherited. It also helps that these efforts come without a large price tag for the cash-strapped government.

"The Premier promised to do certain things to restore environmental protection, and the announcements this week would indicate that he sure wants to at least appear to be keeping these promises," said NDP critic Marilyn Churley. "Unfortunately, there are huge holes in the announcements."

Churley said the proposed greenbelt law is full of loopholes allowing cabinet to exempt any piece of land at any time for development. It appears "that too many compromises have been made," she said.

Churley said it will take more than "half measures" to turn around Ontario's environmental reputation.

"It has been seriously damaged and the only way we are going to get it back is to make it a Number 1 priority with a very strong, experienced minister in place," she said, adding Dombrowsky doesn't fit that bill.

A government insider acknowledges the Liberals are facing uphill battles.

"But we are determined to take this government in a new direction ... and it's all about putting environmental protection at the centre of what we do," the insider said.

"We want to send a message to people that there is a new government in Ontario that is dedicated to re-tilting the balance out there, and making sure environmental protection was chief among considerations when looking at land-use planning."

The government source close to Premier Dalton McGuinty promised there will be more environmental initiatives. "On one level, this is no-brainer stuff because we have to make positive change in this area."

In the end, the insider said, the Liberal government will be judged on "how far we move the yardstick on environmental protection."

One of the key themes of McGuinty's oft-repeated stump speech was a promise to ensure Ontarians have water that is safe to drink, picking up on the spectre of the Walkerton tainted-water disaster. Seven people died and 2,300 became ill when E. coli contaminated the town's water supply in May, 2000. McGuinty also promised "air we can breathe" virtually every day of the 30-day campaign.

`With the Harris government, it was a race to the bottom in terms of environmental protection'

David Oved, environmental consultant

Dan McDermott of the Sierra Club of Canada said he's "cautiously optimistic" the new government will walk the walk when it comes to its commitment to the environment.

"We are looking toward an improvement certainly over what we got from the last government," he said. "At least the commitments are there."

In the 1980s, the then-Liberal government and its environment minister, Jim Bradley, tackled acid rain with a Count Down Acid Rain Program, and received a United Nations award for its blue-box program.

"I believe it is possible to return to those glory days ... when the environment was a priority," Dombrowsky said. "This government intends to consider the environment in everything it does."

While environmental issues languished under the Tory governments of Mike Harris and then Ernie Eves, and the ministry itself suffered deep cutbacks, Walkerton thrust the environment back into the spotlight. Many residents of the south-western Ontario town continue to suffer the effects of tainted water today.

"It forced all of us to stop taking things for granted, like the water we drink and the air we breathe," the government source said. "I don't think there is any question that tragic event was the beginning of a broader public awareness."

David Oved, who worked for Bradley during the '80s and is now a partner in an environmental consulting firm, said the Tories simply did not consider the environment a priority.

"It was always my impression that the Harris government wasn't just un-environmental, it was anti-environmental. I don't think they believed in the vulnerability of the environment or the need to protect it," said Oved, of Environmental Economics International. "With the Harris government, it was a race to the bottom in terms of environmental protection."

The Walkerton tainted-water inquiry found the then-Tory government's cuts to the environment ministry contributed in part to the disaster, and recommended more staff be hired, including water inspectors.

The Liberal "Green Week" initiatives come after the new government took an early hit over breaking its promise to stop 6,600 homes being built on the Oak Ridges Moraine, the environmentally sensitive swath of land that's referred to as the GTA's rain barrel.

The moraine is a glacial deposit of sand and gravel containing headwaters for more than 35 rivers flowing into Lake Ontario. Despite an election promise to halt development, the Liberals discovered it would be too costly to stop because of lawsuits that would follow reasoning critics say they don't buy.

Peter Tabuns, executive director of Greenpeace Canada, said it's a little early to start praising the greening of the Liberals, despite their announcements.

"For us, it's still early days," he said. "They say they are going in the right direction. Let's see the concrete outcomes of these things they have set in motion."

Tabuns said his organization will be more impressed if the Liberals produce "a practical" plan early in the new year for phasing out the province's coal-fired power plants, and the plan manages to "avoid further wasteful and irrational investment in nuclear power."

The Grits promised during the campaign to phase out the plants by 2007, and Energy Minister Dwight Duncan has insisted that's one promise they are not going to break.

Air pollution in southern Ontario has become a major health concern. Health Canada says smog is responsible for 7.7 per cent of all the premature deaths in Toronto, Hamilton, Ottawa, London and Windsor.

The Ontario Medical Association estimated in May that polluted air will kill 2,030 people across the province this year, including 530 in Toronto and 360 in the rest of the GTA. Health-care costs and lost productivity will combine for a price tag of nearly $1.25 billion.

Tabuns said the hiring of new water inspectors was welcome, but success will be measured in charges laid, and prosecutions.

The Liberals' green initiatives have also made them some enemies, chief among them the Urban Development Institute, the lobby arm of the powerful development industry.

Internal government memos obtained by the Star show UDI head Neil Rodgers was furious over Gerretsen's proposed Greenbelt Protection Act, and demanded a seat at the consultation table. He was reportedly not told the minister would immediately freeze rezoning, even before the bill passes third reading in the Legislature.

Publicly, Rodgers mused the freeze could lead to higher housing costs and create more grid-lock in parts of the Golden Horseshoe already approved for new home construction.

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