Ont. environment commissioner 'nervous' about situation

Budgets for the two Ontario ministries charged with protecting the environment have been slashed so much the province is at a "tipping point," Environmental Commissioner Gord Miller warned Tuesday.

Budgets for the two Ontario ministries charged with protecting the environment have been slashed so much the province is at a "tipping point," Environmental Commissioner Gord Miller warned Tuesday.

Too much recyclable material is still ending up in landfills, there's lots of talk but too little action to clean up the Great Lakes, and the government caves in to environmental critics who constantly demand more studies instead of action, Miller said in his annual report.

"Know this: there is a tipping point beyond which bad things happen if we're not watching, we're not measuring, we're not inspecting, we're not on top of," the commissioner said.

"I don't know where that tipping point is, but I have 35 years experience in environmental protection, and I'm nervous about our current situation."

The Environment Ministry has written four reports on ways to increase waste diversion, but still diverts only 23 per cent from landfills and has achieved little on what should be a top environmental priority, said Miller.

"We haven't approved a new landfill site in this province in quite a while and our landfills are filling up, we're getting challenged for capacity," he said.

"We're in a precarious position here in terms of trying to find areas to put our waste."

Most homeowners are doing a good job of recycling and separating their garbage, but far too much industrial waste still goes to landfills.

Miller suggested a landfill tax similar to one in Europe that he said resulted in 75 per cent of construction site materials being recycled instead of going to the dump, but Ontario politicians are staying clear of any new taxes.

Environment Minister Jim Bradley said the government would look at new regulations to try to force more companies to recycle.

"Obviously a determined effort has to be made to increase the diversion rates," said Bradley.

"There will be no tax on landfills. The government has said that there will be no new taxes."

The Progressive Conservatives also oppose a new landfill tax, and even the New Democrats were reluctant to call for one, although they said it should be one of the options considered to increase diversion.

"It's not a matter of raising taxes, but when it comes to putting responsibility on producers for the waste that they're producing then certainly that's one of the solutions that has to be in the mix," said NDP Leader Andrea Horwath.

The government has warned ministries other than health and education will be in for possibly dramatic cuts in the new year as the Liberals struggle to eliminate a $16 billion deficit.

Capacities are already "stretched dangerously thin" at the Ministry of the Environment and the Ministry of Natural Resources, warned Miller.

"It troubles me that for every dollar spent on government operations, less than one penny goes to the ministries that bear the burden of protecting our environment and natural resources," he said.

The Tories said now is not the time to be increasing budgets at ministries other than health and education.

"We all support important public services and want to make sure the maximum number of dollars go to the front lines and not more bureaucracy, more spin doctors and paper pushers," said Opposition Leader Tim Hudak.

"But if we don't start making some tough decisions today, it's going to put the basics in jeopardy down the road."

Miller's annual report said the Ministry of Natural Resources' efforts to protect species at risk amount to "an empty bureaucratic exercise" that does little to help endangered animals.

He called on the government to halt the hunting of snapping turtles until the Ministry of Natural Resources can get a proper estimate of the population, saying allowing hunters to take two turtles a day could be decimating the species.

The report also takes the province and federal government to task for allowing negotiations to clean up the Great Lakes drag on to the point where they "threaten to paralyze" any more progress.

"We've walked away, we've waned. Our commitment has been well short of their contribution, $2.2 billion on the American side," said Miller.

"It's very embarrassing for us because we're not putting up anywhere near that kind of money."

Miller also said it was no accident that the Ontario government is doing so little on the environment, calling it the goal of those who oppose environmental protections.

"We don't see ourselves as having a culture of inaction and procrastination," said Miller.

"Yet that would be a fair criticism from any impartial observer."