Ensuring the Polluter Pays: The Need to Reform Ontario’s Approach to Contaminated Site Liability

Those responsible for allowing or causing pollution should be responsible for the costs associated with it (such as the costs of cleaning it up). This is known as the ‘polluter pays’ principle, and is a fundamental tenet of environmental law. At its core, this principle is about fairness to innocent third parties affected by pollution.

While the polluter pays principle is reflected in several Environmental Protection Act provisions relating to contaminated properties, it is not an absolute. Polluters sometimes avoid liability for clean-up costs by declaring bankruptcy or insolvency or by restructuring. In such cases, the ministry can choose to clean up the property at the cost to taxpayers. Alternatively, the Act also allows the ministry to order anyone who ever owned, managed or controlled a property or operation to pay clean-up costs even if they weren’t responsible for the contamination; under the current law fairness is not a relevant consideration.

14ar cover thumb

2013/14 Annual Report

One of the Applications for Review covered in the Supplement to my 2013/2014 Annual Report addresses this state of affairs. The applicants describe “two separate but related problems with the current legislative scheme.” First, they argue that the government needs to better ensure that polluters pay for the costs associated with their pollution. Second, they ask the government to reconsider how it can best manage situations where it is not possible to make the polluter pay and costs fall on innocent third parties.

As you’ll see in the supplement, I agree that these are significant concerns with the existing contaminated site liability regime. Sadly, the ministry did not give these issues the full consideration they deserve. Although the ministry reported that related efforts were already underway to strengthen the polluter pays principle in Ontario, it dismissed the notion that fairness may have a role to play in how the ministry determines liability. The bankruptcies of some large companies in recent years have left the Government of Ontario and other third parties responsible for the costs of necessary (and expensive!) environmental clean-up work; an often unfair situation that cannot be ignored. To read my full comment on this subject, check out Section 2.1.13 of the 2013/2014 Supplement.

What is a “policy” under the Environmental Bill of Rights?

The EBR and You: A guide to exercising your right to participate in environmental decision making.

Under the Environmental Bill of Rights, 1993 (EBR), prescribed ministries are required to post proposals for environmentally significant policies on the Environmental Registry for public notice and comment. This may appear to be a relatively straightforward requirement, but in practice, a diverse variety of ministry initiatives can constitute policies under the EBR.

In general, policies establish principles, considerations and values that are used to guide a ministry’s decisions or actions. They may describe the details of how a ministry will apply a law or outline how a ministry will undertake a program or plan of action within its mandate. Policies may also apply to individuals undertaking activities that are regulated by a ministry; for example, policies may establish mandatory standards or suggested practices for the regulated activity.

The EBR defines a policy as including the following:

  • Programs (i.e. government initiatives, projects, and undertakings)
  • Plans (i.e. a course of action or strategy that sets out how the government will work to accomplish a goal. This may include defining the roles and responsibilities of government and non-government participants.)
  • Objectives (i.e. statements of intent, or specific goals or targets.)
  • Guidelines or criteria used to make decisions about the issuance, amendment or revocation of instruments.

A number of types of documents also fall within this definition, including, but not limited to: policy statements; operational policies; frameworks; guidance documents; technical guidance; best management practices; protocols; standards; strategies; procedures and directives. The requirement to notify and consult the public also applies to “interim” or “draft” policies if they are being applied by ministries.

The EBR only requires ministries to post proposals on the Environmental Registry for policies that may have a significant effect on the environment. This requirement encompasses policies that could have either a negative or a positive effect on the environment. For example, a policy that might result in harm to a species at risk must be posted as a policy proposal, as well as a policy that exclusively focuses on recovering a species.

There is often confusion about whether guidance that is technical or scientific in nature constitutes a policy for the purpose of the EBR’s notification and consultation requirements. Even when direction is science-based, it often constitutes policy direction, especially in cases where there is conflicting or inconclusive science, or where both scientific and socio-economic considerations are applied to develop direction.

Technical guidance may also have serious implications; in some circumstances, it may inform whether certain activities are in compliance with the law. For example, in July 2013, the Ministry of Natural Resources (MNR) finalized “general habitat descriptions” for 14 species at risk without public notice and consultation. Although these materials were characterized by MNR as technical documents, the ECO’s position is that they are environmentally significant policies, given that they essentially define the areas where the Endangered Species Act, 2007 prohibition on damaging or destroying habitat will apply, and define which activities the ministry considers to be compatible with the affected species’ general habitats.

The EBR contains an exception for proposals that are “predominantly financial  or  administrative  in  nature,” as well as proposals that “form part of or give effect to a budget or economic statement presented to the Assembly.” However, these exemptions should be construed very narrowly in order to reflect the intentions of the legislation to exclude predominantly fiscal or operational decisions from the EBR’s public participation requirements. Policies may have serious environmental effects even if they have a financial or administrative component; therefore, the focus must be on what element is “predominant.” For example, financial tools such as the pricing of renewable energy, water or carbon can nonetheless be predominantly environmental policies. Similarly, environmentally significant policies are not exempted from the EBR’s requirements simply by virtue of being peripherally related to a budget bill, particularly if the bill provides substantial discretion on how to meet budget commitments.

Part of the ECO’s mandate is to provide guidance to ministries on how to comply with the requirements of the EBR. The ECO encourages ministries to contact our office for advice on whether particular ministry endeavours are environmentally significant policies for the purposes of the EBR. Moreover, the ECO encourages ministries to apply a broad and liberal interpretation of its responsibilities under the EBR in order to enhance the transparency of their environmental decision making and receive the full benefit of public consultation.

Find out more in The EBR and You: A guide to exercising your right to participate in environmental decision making.

Pricing Carbon … A Taxing Issue!

Most economists agree that a carbon tax is the best policy instrument to reduce emissions. It is relatively quick and simple to implement, easy to explain to the public and seems to work (i.e., actually achieves emission reductions). And it could raise a fair amount of money. The Ontario government stated very clearly in 2013 that a carbon tax wasn’t on the table (.pdf), but let’s imagine that it is.

We can only speculate on the design of a carbon tax in Ontario, but let’s make a few assumptions in order to estimate the magnitude of the revenues that could be raised. If Ontario’s hypothetical carbon tax was set at the same level as that of British Columbia ($30/tCO2e – tonne of carbon dioxide equivalent), and covered the same companies that now report their annual greenhouse gas emissions to the province (facilities that emit more than 25,000 tCO2e), then the tax would conceivably raise about $1.5 billion per year.

That’s a lot of money. There are many ways the carbon tax revenues could be used, depending on the priorities of the government. There are trade-offs between the various ways to use the revenue – some are more popular with the public than others; some are more economically efficient, and so on. Not everyone will agree on the best way to spend this large sum of money, but how the government chooses to use the revenue matters.

In British Columbia, an early adopter in North America of a carbon tax, the tax was made revenue neutral in order to gain approval from the public. Revenue neutrality means that all revenues from the tax are returned to individuals and businesses through reductions in other taxes, i.e., the money does not go into general government revenues to fund other programs or reduce deficits. People get used to the personal and corporate tax cuts, making it more challenging for future politicians to eliminate. And, it puts that money right back into the economy where it belongs.

Research has shown that public support for a carbon tax hinges on how the revenue is used. In one American poll, the public supported a carbon tax most when the revenues would be used to fund renewable energy.

Other revenue use options include: investing in or subsidizing technological solutions that reduce emissions (e.g. public transit, building insulation, energy efficient appliances, and low-emission vehicles); investing in adapting to climate change; issuing lump sum rebates to lower-income households (who would be most adversely affected by the carbon tax); or reducing the deficit. As in B.C., corporate and personal tax rates could be reduced, although Ontario’s corporate tax rate is already competitive with other provinces (.pdf). Other taxes could be targeted, including taxes on capital investment (corporate taxes or personal income rates on interest, dividends, or capital gains) or consumption. The economic effects of various carbon tax revenue use options has been modelled, at least in the United States, with the most economically beneficial option being reducing other taxes. Of course how the revenue is used has political ramifications, so the most economically efficient use is not always the one chosen.

I support a price on carbon, as I have previously noted, and would like to see Ontario implement some sort of carbon pricing soon. A carbon tax should be back on the table as a viable option. The revenues would provide a boost to the economy, and engage the public on climate change.

 

Keeping Ontario’s Drinking Water Safe

Seven people died and thousands fell ill when Walkerton’s drinking water was contaminated in May 2000. The tragedy shook the nation, leaving Ontarians to question the safety of their tap water.
Faucet
Since then, the Ontario government has brought in many measures to safeguard our drinking water and make sure that a similar incident never happens again. For example, the province now requires that:

  • sources of drinking water be protected;
  • drinking water systems be licensed and meet regularly updated standards;
  • system operators be trained and certified; and
  • water testing labs be licensed, accredited and inspected.

As a result, Ontario’s municipal drinking water is safer than ever.

However, one thing the province hasn’t made much progress on is making sure that municipal drinking water systems are able to cover the costs of providing safe drinking water into the future. The underfunding of Ontario’s water and wastewater systems has been a long-standing problem, with average capital investment chronically lagging what is needed by about $1.2 billion/year (.pdf). Municipalities have historically failed to assess the full costs of maintaining and operating their systems, and failed to recover these costs on their own (.pdf), instead relying on provincial or federal government grants to help them get by.

To push municipal drinking water systems towards being financially self-sustaining, back in 2002 the Ontario government passed the Sustainable Water and Sewage Systems Act. The Act would’ve required municipalities to: develop plans for building, repairing and operating their systems; calculate the costs of implementing these plans; and figure out how to recover these costs using local revenue sources, like water rates, user charges and property taxes. Sadly, the government never brought the Act into force, and it sat stagnant for a decade before being repealed in 2012.

In the meantime, the government decided to take a more flexible and permissive approach. In 2007 it developed a regulation under the Safe Drinking Water Act that requires licensed municipal drinking water systems to just prepare and publish a financial plan (.pdf) detailing the system’s financial position, operations and cash flow six years into the future.

When my office reviewed this regulation in 2007/2008, we raised several concerns. We expressed disappointment that financial plans don’t need to be approved by the province for sufficiency or quality, and don’t need to assess the full costs of maintaining, repairing and operating the drinking water system. More importantly, we doubted that the regulation would push most municipalities to fully recover the costs of supplying drinking water – given how politically unpopular it can be for municipalities to raise residents’ water rates.

Unfortunately the ECO was right.

14ar cover thumb

This year we surveyed 153 Ontario municipalities and found that many (about 41%) are still not recovering the full costs of their drinking water systems, putting the financial sustainability of these systems – and potentially the future safety of their drinking water – at risk. And most (70%) of the municipalities that responded to the ECO have only recently developed asset management plans to determine when assets need to be fixed or replaced. Worse, a few municipalities are not even complying with the government’s meagre requirement to prepare and post financial plans online.

Fourteen years since the Walkerton tragedy, it is long overdue for the government to push all municipalities to achieve full-cost recovery for their drinking water systems. While the small population sizes of some municipalities might hamper their ability to cover capital costs through user rates and taxes, the province should still work with all municipalities to help them achieve financial sustainability. At a minimum, the government should require municipalities to develop a formal plan that lays out options for recuperating the full costs of their systems. Along these lines, the Association of Municipalities of Ontario has argued that municipalities need provincial direction designing full cost recovery plans. Likewise, the Canadian Water Network (.pdf) recently reported that municipalities need to be presented with options and innovations in rate structures and revenue generation.

The longer the province takes requiring municipalities to estimate and recover the full costs of their drinking water systems, the more likely infrastructure deficits will grow – possibly threatening the safety of Ontario’s drinking water.

For more information, see Part 5.5 of the ECO’s 2013/2014 Annual Report – Fourteen Years after Walkerton: Drinking Water Systems Not at Cost Recovery.

 

 

Are we Draining Ontario’s Wetlands?

cattailsThere was a time in the not so distant past when people believed that wetlands were dank wastelands.  Early settlers in Ontario drained, cleared and filled wetlands to make way for farms, villages and towns.

Today we know that wetlands are a vital part of our landscape. Often referred to as nature’s filter, wetlands purify water by trapping sediments and retaining excess nutrients and other pollutants such as heavy metals. They provide habitat for both aquatic and terrestrial species, store water during flooding and release it during droughts. Unfortunately, these natural heritage features are still under the same threats as early settlement times.  It is estimated that more than two-thirds of Southern Ontario’s pre-settlement wetlands have been lost through agricultural drainage, development, encroachment, land clearance, filling, and road construction.

Under the Conservation Authorities Act, watershed-based conservation authorities regulate development and activities in and adjacent to wetlands, but there is some discretion as to which wetlands they regulate.

In land use planning, provincially significant wetlands and coastal wetlands are provided some protection from development and site alteration through the Provincial Policy Statement, 2014. But this approach has several weaknesses because exemptions allow for infrastructure, agricultural drainage projects, and some mining activities. The definition of infrastructure includes sewage and water systems, septage treatment systems, stormwater management systems, waste management systems, electricity generation facilities, electricity transmission and distribution systems, communications/telecommunications, transit and transportation corridors and facilities, oil and gas pipelines and associated facilities. Protection also depends on the wetland’s geographic location, whether or not the wetland has been formally evaluated, and if it has been officially designated in land use plans.

In my 2006/2007 Annual Report, I recommended that the Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry significantly speed up the process of wetland identification and evaluation and ensure that provincially significant wetlands are incorporated into municipal official plans. I also recommended that the Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing amend the Provincial Policy Statement, 2005 to prohibit new infrastructure such as highways in provincially significant wetlands unless there are no reasonable alternatives and it has been demonstrated that there will be no negative impacts on their ecological functions.  Regrettably, the updated Provincial Policy Statement, 2014 does little to resolve some of these weaknesses in wetland protection.

Another weakness is the discord between wetland protection and agricultural drainage. The Drainage Act, administered by the Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs, regulates the creation, maintenance and repair of municipal agricultural drains. Municipal drains, including open ditches and tile drains, are used to remove water from land to increase agricultural production and productivity.  Under the Act, landowners can petition their local municipality to carry out agricultural drainage works, such as the construction of a new drain. Drainage works, by their very nature of dewatering land, pose a real and significant threat to wetlands in rural Ontario by removing water – the very substance that is critical to their existence.

In Ontario, drains continue to contribute to the degradation, fragmentation and loss of wetlands. The Drainage Act is intended for agricultural purposes.  But, rural land owners in the City of Ottawa, just outside of the urban boundary, were able to use the Drainage Act to bypass provincially significant wetland protection provisions in the Provincial Policy Statement.  Presumably the landowners were trying to drain their land to remove any future development restrictions and make their land more desirable to developers rather than for farming purposes.  In my 2009/2010 Annual Report, I recommended that the Ministry of Agriculture, Food, and Rural Affairs amend the Drainage Act and its policies to ensure that provincially significant wetlands are protected from being drained.

We have come a long way in understanding the importance of wetlands since Europeans first settled Ontario. Despite this, the protection of wetlands through provincial legislation and policies is fragmented and inadequate.  On September 25, 2014, the Premier of Ontario directed the Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry to work with other ministers, municipalities and partners to conduct a review of Ontario’s broader wetland strategy. The goal of this review is to strengthen wetland policies and stop the net loss of wetlands. Such a review is long overdue. Perhaps one day we will provide our wetlands with protection suitable for “one of the most important life support systems in the natural environment” (as described by Environment Canada), and not as the dank wastelands from the past.

 

ECO Reporting Reflected in Government Mandate Letters

The Premier of Ontario uses mandate letters to outline the key priorities that are to guide each minister and their ministry over the next four years. This year, the Premier made the unprecedented move of making public her mandate letters to each member of her new cabinet.

Notably for my office, several of the ministries’ mandates include environmentally significant priorities – often regarding issues that I have reported on in the past. Here is just a sampling of those issues, with links to some of my past commentary:

Developing the Ring of Fire – Ministry of Northern Development and Mines

Among several specific priorities related to the Ring of Fire, MNDM is tasked with “continuing to work with the Minister of the Environment and Climate Change and the Minister of Natural Resources and Forestry on decisions relating to environmental assessments, cumulative and regional environmental impacts — and long-term monitoring in the Ring of Fire.”

I first reported on the proposed development of the Far North – and its potential impacts to the environment – in 2000/2001 (then known as the Northern Boreal Initiative), and have continued to report on this issue virtually every year since then.  Last year, I reported on the importance of environmental monitoring and making informed decisions for the Far North and the Ring of Fire.

Strengthening Biodiversity – Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry

One of MNRF’s specific priorities is “Supporting the Biodiversity Strategy. You will continue to work with other ministers and partners to advance measures aimed at further strengthening and protecting Ontario’s biodiversity.”

For over a decade I have taken the position that conserving biodiversity is a provincial interest and a government responsibility.  In my 2012 Special Report on Biodiversity, I highlighted the need for a united approach across government, led by MNRF but including critical contributions from other ministries. You can see what I had to say about the Province’s current biodiversity strategy here.

Enhancing Polluter ResponsibilityMinistry of the Environment and Climate Change

The Premier has charged MOECC with “reviewing the legislative framework to ensure there is a comprehensive approach to holding polluters responsible for decisions that affect the environment. Your ministry will put greater emphasis on prevention and on the “polluter pays” principle, focusing initially on contaminated sites.”

In the supplement to my latest annual report (.pdf), I discussed some concerns with the current regime for contaminated site liability, including the need to strengthen the application of the polluter pay principle within that regime. Indeed, as far back as 2005, I recommended that the government consider amending the Environmental Bill of Rights, 1993 to require ministries to consider the polluter pays principle as part of their environmental decision making.

Anti-SLAPP LegislationMinistry of the Attorney General

Under the heading “Promoting Fairness and Access to Justice,” the Attorney General is directed to prioritize “pursuing the re-introduction of legislation to protect the public from lawsuits intended to discourage public participation.” This is a reference to what is commonly referred to as anti-SLAPP legislation – a law that would protect against SLAPP suits (strategic lawsuits against public participation).

I first recommended that Ontario develop Anti-SLAPP legislation in my 2008/2009 Annual Report; I reported on the province’s lack of progress on that front in 2011/2012.

Reviewing Provincial Growth and Greenbelt Plans Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing

A key priority for MMAH will be leading the upcoming reviews of the Growth Plan and Greenbelt Plan, including a mandate to work with the Minister of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs and others to protect prime agricultural lands.

In my 2012/2013 Annual Report, I wrote about Ontario’s land use planning system, including the government’s troubling failure to develop an adequate monitoring and evaluation program for the Greenbelt Plan. And in my most recent annual report, I shared my ongoing concerns about the Growth Plan’s vision to build sustainable communities in Ontario.

You can read more about the ECO’s views on these and many other environmental topics at www.ecoissues.ca.

Healthy Soils: Building on the Forgotten Resource

14ar cover thumbYou don’t hear or see much in the media about the topic of soil – how healthy soils can slow climate change, help us adapt to it, support biodiversity, reduce the risk of flooding, reduce pollution of surface waters, and enhance food security. Nor do we hear that soils can do all of these things so cost-effectively that the economic benefits can be as substantial as the environmental ones. Unfortunately, soil is the forgotten resource.

Creating and maintaining healthy soils may well be the least appreciated of all environmental efforts. Yet, I am hopeful this can change:  my 2013/2014 Annual Report shares the story of three Ontario farmers who are showing that a focus on soil health not only protects the environment, but also boosts yields and increases profitability.

Dan Konzelmann grows organically, which means that he cannot use any synthetic fertilizers or pesticides. He has learned how to use non-chemical methods to control weeds, combining specific crop rotations with various cover crops and well-timed shallow cultivation. Konzelmann also designed and built his own compost-turning machine, which won a Premier’s Award for Agri-food Innovation and Excellence in 2011.  He states that the results of all his efforts have been extraordinary: higher yields that at least equal and often surpass those of conventional growers (e.g., his soybean yields are 5 to 10 bushels per acre above the provincial average); increased levels of soil organic matter; reduced weeds and disease; greater water-retention capacity and drought resistance; and last, but certainly not least, increased profitability.

Dean Glenney is a conventional farmer who uses synthetic fertilizers and pesticides. Where Glenney differs from the norm is in his management system, one that is extremely protective of the complex world of soil-based organisms that scientists call the “soil food web”.  Glenney calls his system “fencerow farming” and his fundamental principle is to not disturb the soil (and its food web) any more than is absolutely necessary.  He does not till and he places his fertilizer in small amounts close to each seed, where it is easily accessible to new roots. Independent test results show that the water leaving his land has no excess nutrients: the crop uses everything. Glenney also states that his yields have been growing each year and he recently hit 300 bushels of corn per acre, twice the provincial average.

Joe Gorski practices “biological farming”, an approach that focuses on the importance of the soil food web. Like Glenney, he minimizes tillage and is very careful in his use of fertilizer, applying it in such a way that nutrient losses are minimized and the soil food web is not affected. Gorski reports that his five-year average yield for wheat is about 60 per cent higher, and his corn is 70 per cent higher, than the provincial averages. At the same time, he says that his use of nitrogen fertilizer has dropped by more than 50 per cent and his need for pesticides is decreasing each year.

The three farmers profiled above use different approaches to farming, yet they have one important thing in common: they focus on optimizing soil health by protecting and enhancing the soil food web. The benefits are numerous: they are able to produce more food with fewer inputs, less negative impact on the environment, and greater profits. For these farmers, increasing sustainability does not mean sacrificing profitability; indeed, the opposite appears to be true.

An Appealing Concept: Exercising Your Right to Participate Can Make a Difference

14ar cover thumbIn Ontario, we are fortunate to have some unique opportunities to participate in environmental decision making by the provincial government. Thanks to the Environmental Bill of Rights (EBR), which celebrates its 20th anniversary this year, the public receives notice of government proposals that could have a significant effect on the environment, and has a right to comment on them – before the government makes a decision.

But your rights don’t always end when a decision is made. For certain government decisions to authorize (or refuse to authorize) activities that affect the environment – by issuing “instruments” such as licences, permits and approvals – there are several ways the public can continue to be heard:

  • By seeking leave (permission) under the EBR to appeal (challenge) a decision to issue particular types of instruments, such as certain permits to take water or environmental compliance approvals;
  • By directly appealing a decision to issue a Renewable Energy Approval under the Environmental Protection Act or certain decisions made under the Planning Act; and
  • By participating in an appeal initiated by someone else, including the instrument-holder themselves.

Exercising your right to participate in any of these ways can make a difference! Here’s just one example that I highlighted in my Annual Report this year:

In October 2012, Nestlé Canada Inc. filed an appeal of the Ministry of the Environment’s decision to impose certain conditions in a Permit to Take Water. The permit at issue allowed Nestlé to continue to take water from a well near Erin; the company had been drawing water from the well since 1988 and bottling it for commercial sale at a different location. In April 2012, Nestlé applied for a new permit to replace a previous version that would expire in August 2012.

Compared to the previous permits issued for this well, the 2012 permit allowed Nestlé to take more water per minute and per day between April and September, as long as a total monthly cap was not exceeded. Nestlé had requested this condition to allow it greater flexibility in its operations. The permit imposed another condition, which further restricted the maximum daily water taking during drought conditions; this restriction was the subject of the appeal.

Following the filing of the appeal, two non-profit non-government organizations (NGOs), Wellington Water Watchers and the Council of Canadians, applied for and were granted party status in the appeal, meaning they were entitled to make their own submissions on any potential changes to the permit.

Subsequently, Nestlé and the ministry reached an agreement that would loosen the drought restrictions and see the company withdraw its appeal; they submitted this settlement agreement to the Environmental Review Tribunal for approval, as required. The NGOs objected to the terms of the agreement, however, arguing that loosening the drought-related restrictions would not be in the public interest. At a preliminary hearing in October 2013, the Tribunal agreed with the NGOs and refused to approve the proposed settlement, instead ordering a full hearing (click here to read the Tribunal’s decision). A month later, Nestlé filed notice that it wished to withdraw its appeal; none of the other parties objected and the Tribunal accepted the withdrawal and dismissed the appeal without changing any of the conditions of the permit.

I believe that this case demonstrates the importance of public involvement in appeal processes. Without the NGO’s submissions it seems unlikely the Tribunal would have rejected the original settlement agreement, since there would have been no one to raise issues relating to the public interest. As a result of their involvement, the Tribunal was asked to carefully consider these aspects, which ultimately led to a stronger, more protective permit.

For information about other appeals and leave to appeal applications, I would encourage you to read more in the ECO’s 2013/2014 Annual Report.

You can find more information about how to exercise your rights under the EBR in Ontario’s Environmental Bill of Rights and You: A guide to exercising your right to participate in environmental decision making in Ontario.

 

 

Environmental Commissioner Boosts Energy Literacy

Toronto, 15 Oct 2014 – Ontario’s Environmental Commissioner today released Smart from Sunrise To Sunset, to alert the public and decision makers to the ability of the Smart Grid to change how they think about electricity.

Find out more … 

A look at the science on neonicotinoids

14ar cover thumbIn the ECO’s latest Annual Report, we examined the environmental effects of neonicotinoids – a class of pesticides used throughout Ontario. New research on neonicotinoids is being published at an astounding rate, demonstrating an overwhelming level of concern within the scientific community. While much of this research initially focused on the effects of neonicotinoids on pollinators, serious issues are being raised surrounding the broader ecological implications of neonicotinoid use.

The use of neonicotinoids has increased significantly since their introduction in the 1990s. They are now the most widely used insecticides in the world. Neonicotinoids act systemically, meaning that they diffuse throughout the tissues and sap of treated plants, and are found in pollen, nectar and guttation droplets (i.e., small drops of liquid exuded by some plants). They are most commonly used as seed treatments, but they can be applied in other ways, such as foliar sprays and soil additions. Pollinators are primarily exposed to neonicotinoids through nectar and pollen and, notably, through contaminated dust generated during the planting of treated seeds.

Exposure to neonicotinoids has been linked to both lethal and sublethal effects on pollinators. There is now clear evidence that acute exposure to neonicotinoid-contaminated dust is linked to mass bee deaths observed during the planting of seed treated crops. In fact, Canada’s Pest Management Regulatory Agency (PMRA)’s investigation into the 2012 and 2013 bee kills in Canada concluded that neonicotinoids were a contributing factor in many cases. Accordingly, in 2013, the PMRA declared that “current agricultural practices related to the use of neonicotinoid treated corn and soybean seed are not sustainable.” (.pdf)

Furthermore, a number of studies have concluded that neonicotinoids can also cause adverse sublethal effects on bees, such as:

Even with lower concentrations, cumulative and/or synergistic effects may cause impaired colony function or even failure. For example, one recent study concluded that chronic sublethal stress can be a cause of honey bee colony failure, noting that if many bees in a colony become impaired, it may lead to a cumulative effect on normal colony function.

In recent years, substantial declines in honey bee populations have been observed, notably in North America and Europe. This decline includes colony losses in Ontario: over the last eight years, the average overwintering loss of bee colonies in Ontario has been approximately 34 per cent – more than double the 15 per cent winter loss rate that is considered to be acceptable by apiculturists. In fact, last winter, Ontario lost 58 per cent of its honey bee colonies. In addition to these overwintering losses, a number of other large-scale bee deaths have been reported in Canada. In the spring and summer of 2012 and 2013, the PMRA received numerous reports of honey bee mortalities (.pdf) from beekeepers in Ontario, Quebec and Manitoba. The resulting Health Canada report concluded that the planting of corn seeds treated with neonicotinoids contributed to the majority of the bee mortalities that occurred in the corn growing regions of Ontario and Quebec.

Signs are emerging that many wild pollinators, particularly bumble bees, are in decline as well. For example, the Committee on the Status of Pollinators in North America has stated that long-term population trends are demonstrably downward for several wild bee species, as well as for some butterflies, bats and hummingbirds.

Although the impact of neonicotinoids on bees has received a great deal of attention, honey bee declines may be a visible warning sign of a larger ecological problem.  Troubling questions are being raised about the broader environmental effects. Only a small portion of the active substance is taken up (.pdf) by plants in seed-treated crops, while the rest enters the environment. This is of great concern because neonicotinoids are not only persistent in soil and water, but are also water soluble and highly mobile within ecosystems.

As a result, neonicotinoids can accumulate in soil, potentially having adverse effects on soil ecosystems (.pdf) and creating a likelihood of uptake by subsequently planted crops and wild plants. They also have the potential to migrate into ground and surface water. Runoff and spray drift can impact aquatic invertebrates in streams and ponds. For example, in one study conducted in California, imidacloprid was detected in 89 per cent  of surface water samples – with 19 per cent of samples exceeding toxicity guidelines. Another recent study in the Netherlands demonstrated that aquatic macro-invertebrates are less abundant in surface water with higher imidacloprid concentrations, suggesting potential consequences for the food chain and ecosystem functions.

Neonicotinoids may also be posing serious risks to birds and mammals. For example, a July 2014 study found that declines in insectivorous birds are associated with high neonicotinoid concentrations. The researchers state that their “results suggest that the impact of neonicotinoids on the natural environment is even more substantial than has recently been reported and is reminiscent of the effects of persistent insecticides in the past.” Questions are also being raised regarding the potential human health effects of neonicotinoids.

In June 2014, the Task Force on Systemic Pesticides released the most comprehensive review of the effects of neonicotinoids to date. The Worldwide Integrated Assessment of the Impact of Systemic Pesticides on Biodiversity and Ecosystems examined over 800 scientific studies spanning the last five years, including studies sponsored by industry. Among the study’s main conclusions is that “The combination of prophylactic use, persistence, mobility, systemic properties and chronic toxicity is predicted to result in substantial impacts on biodiversity and ecosystem functioning.”

As a result of this rapidly evolving body of research, the ECO recommended that the Ministry of Agriculture and Food and the Ministry of the Environment undertake monitoring to determine the prevalence and effects of neonicotinoids in soil, waterways and wild plants. The Ontario government needs to develop an effective action plan on neonicotinoids. We cannot ignore the problem and accept the risk of an ecological catastrophe.