Category Archives: Lake Erie Lowlands

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.

Chickadee-dee-dee

dsc_00120001-21

As it turns out, the friendly suggestion of emailing so-and-so for directions was less of a friendly suggestion and more of a base requirement, which makes me wonder why the directions weren’t just included with the volunteer package. In any case, we got to the right address at what I thought was the right time only to find that we were distinctly not in the right place, and had no idea what to do about it.

Instead of participating in an official bird count, therefore, we walked through the winter woods and counted a few birds on our own. And it was lovely. Cold. Very cold. But lovely. Heaps of pristine white snow crossed by those livid blue shadows you only get in winter. I’ll have to ask all my questions next year, along with the new one: Why on earth would you not include full directions with the volunteer package?

~~~~~

The one bird we heard most was the black-capped chickadee*, that improbably tiny ball of hollow bones and fluff. Chickadees are a species of titmouse, meaning a small bird, and are utterly unprepossessing: grey, black, brown, white. No impressive crests, no fan-shaped tails, no glorious songs. Not as famous as Raven or Coyote in native folklore. One Cherokee legend has it nick-named the Truth Teller for helping a tribe kill Spearfinger, a monster who would in the guise of a grandmother or favourite aunt slay children to eat their livers, but even its stories are not impressive enough to have made a mark on our modern consciousness. Only 12-15 cm (4-6″) from the tip of its bill to the tip of its tail.

But it will live outdoors through a Canadian winter.

It’s emblematic of a lot of the less-showy Canadian wildlife. It’s small. It doesn’t look like much; it’s hard to turn it into an award-winning photograph for National Geographic Magazine. It looks fragile enough to be knocked out by a toothpick. But it survives.

For that alone, if nothing else, it would be my favourite bird. I also happen to think it’s adorable.

~~~~~

* Truth-telling, in honour of the chickadee: I am pretty sure that’s what we heard. I’m not an expert on birds by any means, but I think the call was the chickadee-dee-dee for which the bird was named. Finding one for a positive id on the top of a 20-40 ft dense evergreen was too much for Frances’s binoculars, however.

bird-brained

Tomorrow, early enough to drag me out of bed at an ungodly hour for a weekend, I will be standing quietly in temperatures well below zero, in a large urban park, counting birds for a couple of hours.

Don’t ask me for details. I haven’t a clue what it entails, other than–presumably–silence and watchfulness. And layers.

Either disastrously or brilliantly, I will be accompanied by my preschool daughter, who is very excited about bringing her binoculars to see if she can count birds in the big park and help people. Assuming that she hasn’t been bundled up so thoroughly that, like Ralph’s little brother in A Christmas Story, she is incapable of moving her arms and so can’t put her binoculars to her eyes. I thought about hiring a babysitter, and then I thought about my bank balance, educational opportunities, and ways of instilling a love of the non-human in her. I also thought about post-count lunches at favourite restaurants featuring unethically-raised poultry products, but we’ll leave that out for now.

Every January, we cover the Polar Bear Dip–a bunch of people jumping into frozen water for a few minutes, then running inside for hot chocolate and fleece blankets. Every January, a bunch of volunteers stands around outside counting birds to measure the success of local wildlife programs for six hours, and I’ve never heard of it.

How do you count birds? How do you find them, in the first place? How many is a good number? What species do you want to find? Why do people volunteer for this year after year, some of them coming from a hundred kilometres away to do so? Who are they?

~~~~~

I just finished Blessed Unrest, Paul Hawken’s book about the global environment-and-social-justice-movement with no name. It is a profoundly hopeful, if at times equally profoundly distressing, book, positing that in the complexity and the relationships between all of these tens of thousands of small organizations, globally, can be seen something like a new life form, an immune response to unsustainable practices. He offers no guarantee that this immune response will be effective, but makes it clear which way he thinks things will go. In a passage sure to resonate with other parents, he quotes from Michael Chabon:

“Will there really be people then, Dad?” he said. “Yes,” I told him without hesitation, “there will.” I don’t know if that’s true, any more than do Danny Hillis and his colleagues, with the beating clocks of their hopefulness and the orreries of their imaginations. But in having children–in engendering them, in loving them, in teaching them to love and care about the world–parents are betting, whether they know it or not, on the Clock of the Long Now. They are betting on their children, and their children after them, and theirs beyond them, all the way down the line from now to 12,006. If you don’t believe in the Future, unreservedly and dreamingly, if you aren’t willing to bet that somebody will be there to cry when the Clock finally runs down, ten thousand years from now, then I don’t see how you can have children. If you have children, I don’t see how you can fail to do everything in your power to ensure that you win your bet, and that they, and their grandchildren, and their grandchildren’s grandchildren, will inherit a world whose perfection can never be accomplished by creatures whose imaginations for perfecting it is limitless and free.

Chabon’s son was eight when he asked that question. Children of eight have already learned to doubt the future of the human species? That is heartbreaking.

Also, it makes standing in the snow with a five-year-old, still innocent enough to be afraid primarily of the red roses on her bedroom curtains (they might be the eyes of monsters staring at her while she sleeps), for a couple of hours counting birds seem not only possible, but necessary.

I’ve cast my bet on the Clock of the Long Now, too; and I will do everything I can to stack that deck.