The federal government is playing a dangerous game by refusing to force any company that makes or uses toxic chemicals to have a plan in place to prevent them from getting into the environment, a lawyer for the Canadian Environmental Law Association said Monday.
Joseph Castrilli said it was profoundly disappointing that Liberal and Conservative MPs voted on Monday against amending the Canadian Environmental Protection Act to make pollution prevention plans mandatory for all chemicals listed as toxic under the act.
"Do you want to live a healthy life?" he asked. "Do you want to drink water that isn't contaminated, breathe air that's not polluted or walk in fields that are not otherwise strewn within the residues of airborne hazardous substances? Then you need to take this statute seriously."
The Canadian Environmental Protection Act, or CEPA, governs how toxic chemicals are identified and managed in Canada. It is in the midst of its first update in two decades, following a mandatory review that took place in 2016 and 2017.
A bill to update the act is currently before the House of Commons environment committee, which is now considering amendments to the bill.
On Monday, the committee discussed an amendment from Green Party Leader Elizabeth May to make pollution prevention plans mandatory for all toxic substances.
There are more than 150 substances now listed as toxic under CEPA, but the legislation gives the minister discretion over whether to order a pollution prevention plan for each one.
Such an order would mean any company that manufactures or uses one of the substances would have to show how it intends to keep that substance from getting into the environment.
May, following advice from the Canadian Environmental Law Association that now dates back more than 20 years, tried to change the wording so such plans would be required in every case.
The government said no, and with Conservatives in agreement, voted down May's amendment.
John Moffet, an assistant deputy minister at Environment Canada, told the committee a pollution prevention plan is only one option to lower the risk posed by chemicals deemed to be toxic to people or the environment.
"I don't think we have any objections to the stated goal of promoting pollution prevention," Moffet said.
He said CEPA also allows the government to regulate a substance including banning it outright, "which is the most effective and powerful way to achieve pollution prevention."
He said forcing pollution prevention plans for every substance would be an "unnecessary imposition" when there are "other more stringent and immediately effective measures" available.
May said her amendment allowed some discretion for the minister to use alternatives to a pollution prevention plan, including prohibitions, as long as he explains why.
NDP MP Laurel Collins said the government's resistance is surprising.
She said the government could even include an outright ban as part of a pollution prevention plan, but by refusing to make sure every substance has a plan in place, some are falling through the cracks.
"It's seriously alarming," she said.
The Canadian Environmental Law Association said only one-sixth of the substances listed as toxic under the act have a pollution prevention plan.
Toxic spills and disposals must be reported to the federal government. The association analyzed the reports on 32 cancer-causing toxic substances, including arsenic, benzene, lead, asbestos and mercury. It found companies have done a good job reducing the amount of toxic substances leaking into the air.
In 2006, 6.2 million kilograms of those substances were reported as airborne emissions, a number that fell to 3.8 million kilograms in 2020.
But when it comes to land spills and disposals, the story is the opposite. In 2006, 110 million kilograms of those 32 substances were purposely or accidentally released into land. In 2020, that grew to 154 million kilograms
One Canadian Environmental Law Association report called the government's lack of effort to make pollution prevention mandatory akin to "playing chemical whack-a-mole with some of the most dangerous substances on Earth."