Environment Canada struggling to enforce law

The federal environment commissioner warns that Environment Canada is struggling to enforce environmental protection regulations, and those who break the law aren't always properly punished.

The federal environment commissioner warned Tuesday that Environment Canada is struggling to enforce environmental protection regulations, and those who break the law aren't always properly punished.

"We concluded that the enforcement program was not well-managed to adequately enforce compliance with the Canadian Environmental Protection Act," wrote Scott Vaughan in his annual report tabled in Parliament.

Part of the problem stems from a lack of knowledge.

Commissioner of the Environment Scott Vaughan says in his annual report issued Tuesday that Canada is not fairly or effectively applying the Canadian Environmental Protection Act. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press )
The federal environmental enforcement directorate "does not have adequate information on whom it is regulating and who is not complying [with the act]," wrote Vaughan.

He also found that procedures to mete out penalties in a "fair, predictable and consistent manner" weren’t being followed.

Vaughan's report looked at 45 out of the environmental protection act's 53 regulations. He says he found problems with many of them.

"We noted there are major gaps," Vaughan told reporters following the report's release.

Environment Canada doesn't have enough information to assess 16 of the 45 regulations Vaughan looked at, and didn't do enough laboratory testing for five of the 45.

"And lab tests are necessary to apply these regulations. There’s problems with evaluating risks for 26 of the 45 regulations. There’s a lack of direction, lack of followup.

"There are significant problems. These are serious problems that exist," Vaughan said.

The commissioner's office later clarified that specialized training and accredited labratory tests don't exist for Environment Canada to make these assessments.

'Refused to acknowledge' facts

Environment Canada was shown many drafts of the report throughout its preparation. The commissioner wrote that the department’s senior management "has refused to acknowledge the facts presented in this report."

In fact, Environment Canada was adamant in its disagreement with the findings of the report.

"The department rejects the contention that issues are of such a magnitude to justify a comprehensive conclusion that the enforcement program was not well-managed," Environment Canada wrote in its response to a draft of the report.

NDP Environment critic Megan Leslie says the problem starts with a turnstile at the top, with Canada having had five different environment ministers over five years.

"The government’s understanding of regulatory compliance is woefully inadequate. For example, key information needed for environmental protection is missing, and the government followed up on only half of identified violations to ensure compliance," she said.

"The problems are systemic and they're a result of failed management."

Environment Minister Peter Kent said Vaughan "failed to recognize that this government has made significant investments and improvements to the enforcement regime." 

"This government has increased enforcement capacity by more than 50 per cent through budget 2007. We enhanced it again in 2008. We hired more enforcement officers and they are, in most respects, doing their jobs," Kent said.

Dangerous goods transportation still lacking

There were five other chapters in the commissioner's report, with subjects ranging from the transportation of  dangerous products to a study of fisheries sustainability.

When it comes to moving dangerous goods around the country, the commissioner found that Transport Canada needs to improve the oversight of its regulations. According to the commissioner, this isn’t the first time these shortcomings were pointed out.

"Many of the weaknesses we found in Transport Canada were identified more than five years ago and have yet to be fixed," the report said.

Vaughan pointed to an incident in Western Canada where sodium hydroxide was put into a truck that was not designed for it.

"It was with an aluminium container, and the truck literally dissolved about 10 kilometres down the highway," Vaughan said.

"These containers are important for a reason. It’s to protect the employees of the transport companies, to protect the first responders and also to protect the communities if an accident occurs. There’s two accidents on average a week.

"Canadians would be better protected if those regulations were more effectively enforced."

The National Energy Board (NEB) was cited in the same chapter. The board is responsible for monitoring the safety of oil and natural gas pipelines.

For the most part, the report liked what it saw, but found the NEB could do more to follow up with the pipeline companies it monitors.

"There is little indication that the board takes steps to ensure that the identified deficiencies are corrected," the report said.

The board is responsible for oversight of 71,000 kilometres of pipeline in Canada. With the equivalent of 65 to 68 full-time employees involved in compliance work, Vaughan said, that works out to one employee being responsible for about 1,000 kilometres.

Leslie says the board is "not doing the job necessary to ensure that emergency procedures are up to date or adequate for the over 70,000 kilometres of pipeline that they are responsible for."

The commissioner's report also includes:

  • A review of Environment Canada's approach to science, which found the department has "the necessary systems in place to conduct high-quality science."
  • A study on the sustainability of coastal and inland fisheries, which emphasizes the importance of respecting ecological limits based on reliable scientific information, and communicating roles and responsibilities for sustainability among the stakeholders in a fishery.
  • A study of the government's environmental monitoring, including solar flares, air quality, bird migration, disease-carrying insects, changes in the permafrost and other aspects, and its importance in environmental stewardship. 
  • A review of 25 petitions submitted to the commissioner's office in 2011, of which 92 per cent received a response from the government on time.


  • This story has been edited from an earlier version to correct a mistatement by Commissioner Vaughan, in which he referred erroneously to a shipment of sulphuric acid instead of sodium hydroxide.
    Dec 13, 2011 4:14 PM ET

With files from Laura Payton