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Activists demand tough environmental laws to protect Ontario's drinking water

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When Mark Mattson was growing up, he remembered drinking the water in Lake Ontario. He learned how to swim and fish in the Lake and sail and scuba dive. His passion for justice led him to a career in environmental law, where he's been working on environmental issues for the past 20 years. But now a new piece of legislation called the Legislative Framework for Modernization could threaten his ability to engage in legal processes to enforce environmental laws.

"This piece of legislation, if passed, will eliminate completely the ability for groups like mine to do our jobs, to represent justice and issues of the environment," said Mattson, President and Waterkeeper with Lake Ontario Waterkeeper at a rally Thursday where dozens of people came to Queen's Park to tell the Premier that they want their drinking water protected from industrial polluters.

Under Ontario's Environmental Bill of Rights (EBR), any company that wants exemption from an environmental law in Ontario has to apply for a Certificate of Approval.

"The EBR made it law that each and every one of you have the right to know when someone applies for a permit to take away or eliminate an environmental protection." 

But the Ontario government wants to "modernize" the environmental approvals system as part of its Innovation Agenda and commitment to Open for Business.

"This new Act (up for third reading) doesn't just take away the government's resources to review that piece of paper that asks for exemptions from environmental laws, it takes away your right to know about it and comment on it."

Mattson called it "the worst piece of environmental legislation and the worst rollback of environmental laws" he's ever seen. If passed, he said that over 80 per cent of Certificates of Approval will no longer be seen by the public.

The Lake Ontario Waterkeeper has made recommendations and produced a 26 page report condemning the new Act but has had no response.

"If this piece of (current) legislation gets amended it will change things in Ontario and for all of you," he said. "It will wipe out my ability to even protect Lake Ontario and money, politics and power will dictate who gets the short end of the environmental stick."

For the past ten years, Erin Shapero has served as a Markham city councilor, standing up for the Rouge and Don Watersheds on behalf of her constituents.

"What residents see is the degradation of our rivers, streams and aquifers," said Shapero. "If you come to where I live what you'll see are rivers that have been put in straight jackets of concrete, streams that have been paved over or piped and wells that no longer bring water to the surface."

According to Shapero, there's a mass mobilization to bring these issues front and centre, especially during the current election.

"There's a massive environmental consciousness that is rising," she said. In York Region, where Shapero lives, development, government projects and industrial water taking has wreaked havoc, including the pumping of thousands of litres out of marine aquifers.

"All with provincial approvals," she said.

Just southwest of Peterborough lies the village of Millbrook, where artist and activist Jane Zednik took part in a year long struggle to protect an Oak Ridges Moraine water source. There was a plan to divert the well water that supplies Millbrook (via a 12 kilometre pipeline) to provide for a casino expansion and other developments on vacant prime farmlands.

"When a group attempted to oppose a development a few years earlier, they had to disband due to the threat of litigation by the township," said Zednik. "So a loose non-group was formed under the banner 'It's About Water.'"

She thought the Environment Ministry would take a serious look at a massive water project such as the one being proposed.

"But the Ministry doesn't approve or disapprove a project," she said. "They just ensure the paper work is done and the environmental process is followed. Which is not what you might think. Not conduct studies as to whether the project is environmentally sound."

Zednik said you have to know technical environmental terms in order to appeal or object to a project. "Yet despite the odds extraordinary dedicated citizens stepped up to the plate," she said. "The water battle was won because the evidence gathered by the citizens convinced councilors to change their minds."

Several people involved in the "It's About Water" campaign are now running for city council in the current muncipal election.

Click here to see more photos from the rally.

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