The axe is falling at Environment Canada, and around 700 positions are on the chopping block.

Union representatives were advised about the coming cuts in writing Monday and given details about the federal government's plans to eliminate the positions during a meeting Wednesday in Ottawa.

Meteorologists, chemists, biologists and other scientists are among those who will be receiving letters from the department notifying them that they will either lose their job or be placed on a list of employees deemed "surplus."

After a 90-day period, the roughly 300-person "surplus" list will be formalized, and those workers will be offered positions elsewhere within the government.

Gary Corbett, president of the Professional Institute of the Public Service of Canada, which represents 57,000 scientists and professionals in the federal and some provincial governments, said Thursday there is shock and sadness among his union's members — more than 200 of them — who will be affected by the cuts.

"You can imagine the turmoil with the people in their own personal lives, but also in the department because this affects the whole department, all employees, because they wonder if they're going to be next," Corbett said.

It isn't known yet what programs and services from Environment Canada will shrink, Corbett said, but he warned that the job cuts will not only affect the employees, but Canadians.

"When you start to erode the professionals doing this work, down the road it will certainly hurt Canadians … maybe their water quality, maybe their air quality," Corbett said.

In an internal memo obtained by CBC News, Environment Canada staff in the department's section most affected by the job cuts were told they will be focusing on core areas and forsaking other work they had been doing.

The Environmental Protection Operations Directorate "needs to focus its activities on its core programs areas: environmental assessment, environmental emergencies, federal contaminated sites, marine programs, compliance promotion and environmental effects monitoring," the memo reads.

The cuts announced this week are not part of the strategic and operating review that Ottawa is undertaking in order to balance its budget by 2014. Where exactly the government is going to find those savings within every department has yet to be announced. Sixty-seven government departments and agencies have been asked to identify savings of either five or 10 per cent of their budgets.

Corbett said the union was told the positions were being eliminated because of "fiscal restraint" measures. Environment Canada was asked in the 2010 budget to identify strategic review savings over a three-year period.

Critics blast job cuts

Green Party Leader Elizabeth May issued a statement that expressed concern about the cuts and how they might affect Environment Canada's core activities.

"We are worried that cuts are also impacting other departments. The total impact of this round of layoffs should include parliamentary oversight," May said.

She noted that Environment Canada's website says its expertise strengthens its ability to deal with complex and changing environmental issues.

"The Green Party asks how this latest round of job cuts will affect this ability," the statement said.

The Liberals also reacted to the job cuts, calling them "reckless" and saying they "prove that protecting our fragile environment while building a vibrant green economy is not a Conservative priority."

"These massive cuts are deeply alarming and will result in reduced ability to evaluate scientific issues, such as air quality, climate change and water quality, and could potentially lead to less-informed decision-making," Liberal environment critic Kirsty Duncan said in a statement. 

Nycole Turmel, interim NDP leader and the former head of Canada's largest public sector union, said the government is cutting from its environment budget rather than being proactive on environmental issues.

"They're cutting in important files like the environment and social programs, and giving a holiday to big corporations," she said.

Turmel said the Conservatives lack a vision to take care of Canadians' needs.

Treasury Board President Tony Clement, the minister overseeing the government's strategic review, said Environment Canada made the job cuts decision and he knew little about them. He said the government is sympathetic to those put out of work and tries to help them find other employment.

"When there are staff reductions, first of all those decisions are not taken lightly, because we are dealing with human beings and families and we know that this is sometimes a challenging time when these decisions are made for those individuals," Clement said at a news conference in Ottawa.

"But we as a government go out of our way to work with each individual to try to see whether through attrition, whether there's another position available in the government of Canada or at least work with them for retraining. I think that's the right thing to do."

He said it's too soon to tell what impact the widespread review that's underway to reduce the deficit will have on federal public service employment. Every year 11,000 people leave the public service voluntarily, Clement said, and the government will try to match that attrition with any job losses from the review to help people find other jobs, he said.

"I cannot guarantee that that will be 100 per cent of the time, but I can certainly say that we'll use our best efforts," he said.