The finer points of Environmental Assessment in Ontario

Recently, I read on a blog about Toronto Hydro’s proposed anemometer project the following statement: “Here is another fun piece of trivia: How many full environmental assessments have actually been done before wind turbine projects have been built in Ontario? HINT: There have been 17 wind projects. Answer? Are you sure you want it? Here goes: Zero. Who needs an environmental assessment when the project has ‘green’ in the title.”

I won’t provide a link, not because I don’t care about the rules of online discourse, but because the source in this case is not relevant. I’ve read similar claims all over the place, and I’m sure this writer is not the originator of this (false) statistic. I’m also sure that anyone who’s read the blog in question will recognize it immediately.

Every wind energy project over 2 megawatts in size in Ontario is required to have an environmental assessment screening.

And there’s the rub: critics argue that screenings don’t count because they’re not “full assessments.”

A bit about my background: I completed an Environmental Studies degree at the University of Waterloo in Ontario, majoring in Environment and Resource Studies and with a certificate in Environmental Assessment. Since that time, approximately ten years ago, I’ve been involved with hundreds of environmental assessments at the provincial and federal level, many of them joint or “coordinated” projects (a term that indicates cooperation between provincial and federal review authorities and their intention to eliminate duplication of effort by the proponent, but it does not shorten the process–at times, much the contrary), and plenty of them windfarms in Ontario. Ninety-nine per cent of these, at least, were screening-level assessments. The screening-level assessments for a simple culvert repair over a rural drainage ditch alone would be thirty pages long and take at least several months if not a year or more to complete. Those for complex projects, including wind farms, often produced several multi-inch-thick binders of consultant reports and a couple of file folders of correspondence between government agencies and interested stakeholders, and that often doesn’t include emails and other electronic forms of communication (which had a separate filing system where I spent the last several years). Screenings are not EA-lite. They are EA-different. This confusion in terminology is understandable, and I hope to do my bit to clear it up.

From the Ontario Ministry of Environment’s website on Environmental Assessment (the centre links on my computer come up broken, so use the sidebar):

Individual (or “full”) environmental assessments: “Environmental assessment (EA) is both a study and a planning process which evaluates the potential environmental effects and benefits of a project or undertaking on the environment. EAs are typically carried out for large-scale complex undertakings with potential for significant environmental effects and major public interest.”

What does this mean? Uranium mines, other mining projects. Projects, in other words, with the potential to create significant toxic effects for humans or the environment–not nuisance complaints. We’re talking tailings here. Cancer, birth defects, premature deaths, that kind of thing. Black lung disease. Not a decline in property values.

Or, a project can be of a type that is not well understood. Wind farms have been built commercially now for several decades, and they do not fall in this category. The impacts of wind energy projects are known: that is, we already know that wind turbines create noise, have the potential to kill birds, have aesthetic impacts, and so on. A full assessment would be carried out for projects in which the specific nature of likely impacts is not yet known.

Screening-level “class” assessments: “There are currently 10 approved class environmental assessments (class EAs) in Ontario which cover a wide range of projects and activities including: municipal infrastructure, transit, provincial highways, forest management, activities in provincial parks, disposition of Crown resources, nuisance species control, fish stocking, shoreline and stream bank stabilization, access roads, hydro transmission lines, modifications to hydroelectric facilities, as well as flood and erosion control projects.”

What does this mean? Well, for starters, from this list alone you can see that “green” has nothing to do with the likelihood of a project being covered off under a class EA process. Class EAs are carried out when projects are so frequent and routine that doing a full, individual assessment could only be considered a waste of government resources (keep in mind that civil servants need to read and approve the whole thing–do you really want MOE employees reading full, detailed assessments of every road widening project in the province, without any reference to impacts understood from previous projects?)

Streamlined assessments for electricity projects: “Since 2001, both private and public sector electricity projects are equally subject to the requirements of the Environmental Assessment Act (EAA) through the Electricity Projects Regulation (O. Reg. 116/01) and the Guide to Environmental Assessment Requirements for Electricity Projects.

“This regulation sets out the environmental assessment (EA) planning process for electricity projects and determines the categories of assessment based on capacity, fuel type and potential for significant environmental effects. [as noted above, all wind energy projects over 2 MW are subject to this process.] It is a proponent-led self-assessment process similar to the class EA process.

“Projects that may have relatively benign environmental effects, such as a small wind turbine project, are not subject to any EA requirements. Projects that may have some environmental effects that can be easily mitigated or managed are required to complete the Environmental Screening Process. Projects that are likely to have significant environmental effects are required to complete the EA process as outlined in Part II of the EAA.

“Proponents following the Environmental Screening Process identify and evaluate the potential environmental effects of their projects, consult with interested persons, and outline possible impact management measures. Proponents then prepare an Screening Report or a more detailed Environmental Review Report.

“These reports are made available for public and government agency review. During the review period, those with outstanding concerns have an opportunity to submit an elevation request, requesting that the project undergo a more rigorous review. If the Director elevates the project, then the proponent must prepare and submit to the ministry a terms of reference and EA for review and a decision. If the project is not elevated, then the proponent can proceed to obtain other approvals as required for the undertaking.”

What does this mean?

It means proponents are required to assess the known impacts of the project they are proposing with regards to their chosen site. For example, in the case of wind energy, they would take the known impact of bird fatalities and assess the likely impact given the site in question: how many birds are likely to die from these turbines at this location? This is a much better use of resources than requiring the proponent to demonstrate that the wind turbine will not create tailings or toxic effluents, as would be the case under an individual EA.

Local stakeholders, including residents, have the opportunity to be involved throughout the process. Yes, it is self-directed; but it is also subject to government review, and believe me, government agencies are not blindly rubber-stamping screening reports. Civil servants can and do direct proponents to fill gaps where they see them, and this can be influenced by stakeholder input. Ho
w do I know? I was such a
civil servant, and I worked with other civil servants, and I’m sure there were times proponents were cursing our names for the umpteenth information request or nitpicky detail or quibble over calclations we sent their way–and yes, that includes wind farms.

This brings me to my last point: elevation requests. Here’s how it works:

1. The proponent applies for their permits, approvals, whatever.
2. They complete their environmental screening in support of that application (aside: such projects frequently require federal approvals, triggering federal environmental assessment processes in addition to provincial ones).
3. The report is made public. At this point, and not before, members of the public who have concerns not addressed in the report can apply for an elevation, meaning that it is “bumped up” to a full or individual screening process. They may be turned down (the decision will be made by the Ministry of Environment) because, believe it or not, sometimes members of the general public have no idea what they’re talking about. No matter how you feel about any project in particular I’m sure you would not be thrilled by the idea of John Smith at 123 Elm Street bumping up every sewer upgrade in your neighbourhood to a full, individual screening process because he’s worried that the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles are not receiving an adequate oxygen supply.

Complaining that the proponent will not bump up the process in advance of even proposing a project, let alone carrying out the screening review, is way premature.

I hope this information has added some clarity to the debate for any interested persons who wandered through. Mostly, though, I want you to know that wind energy projects in the province of Ontario are subject to environmental assessment. How do I know?

I’ve read them.

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