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How are fracking and water protection affected by eliminating the Hazardous Materials Information Review Commission?

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This morning the Senate approved Bill C-45, Harper’s second omnibudget bill of the year, and Governor General David Johnston will give Royal Assent once more to this troubling trend of the Harper government.

There is widespread concern about the sweeping changes to environmental legislation and removal of critical safeguards for water protection. Bill C-38, the spring omnibudget bill, repealed and replaced the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act with a new act that eliminated 3000 federal environmental assessments. The Harper government also gutted protections for fish habitat with amendments to the Fisheries Act. With C-45, the Harper government is abdicating their responsibility on 99% of lakes and rivers through the overhaul of the Navigable Waters Protection Act leaving “protections” for 97 lakes, 62 rivers and three oceans.

Tucked away in the changes of over 60 pieces of legislation, this second budget bill eliminates the Hazardous Materials Information Review Commission (HMIRC). Bill C-45 eliminates the Commission by transferring its powers and responsibilities to the Minister of Health. Although this has failed to garner any in-depth media coverage, this change could have significant effects on fracking, tar sands development and the multiplicity of industries that deal with hazardous materials.

What does the Hazardous Materials Information Review Commission do?

In general, the HMIRC safeguards worker safety by assessing compliance with the Workplace Hazardous Materials Information System (WHMIS), and plays a key role in educating workers on health and safety risks, safe handling, proper storage, transportation and disposal of hazardous materials. They also register claims for trade-secret exemptions on disclosing information on hazardous materials.

Industry must provide adequate information on hazardous materials on labels and more importantly on Material Safety Data Sheets (MSDSs) with requirements outlined in the Hazardous Products Act and the Controlled Product Regulations. According to the HMIRC’s 2011-2012 Report on Plans and Priorities, the Commission’s responsibility includes ensuring that MSDSs for “products with trade secrets used by workers in Canada disclose complete and accurate information to reduce workplace-related illness and injury.” The report goes on to say “MSDSs must fully disclose all hazardous ingredients in the product, its toxicological properties, the safety precautions workers need to take when using the product, treatment required in the case of injury, and other pertinent information.” To see the nine categories of information that must be outlined on an MSDS, click here.

The MSDSs provide information on the potential hazards including health, fire, reactivity and environmental hazards and how to work safely with chemical products. The Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety says the MSDS are important to the “development of a complete health and safety program.” A recent study in the journal of Environmental Health detailed the health risks of women in manufacturing and other industries handling chemical products which highlights the need for an independent body to effectively regulate and monitor industry.

What kind of claims does the Commission receive?

The Commission receives requests for exemptions from a wide range of industry players including oil and gas, chemical and electronics companies. According to the List of active claims as at December 06, 2012, DOW chemicals as well as fracking companies such as Baker Petrolite Corp., Calfrac, Schlumberger Canada Limited and Trican Well Service Ltd. have applied for trade-secret exemptions.

Any company dealing with hazardous materials in fracking, tar sands development or other industries would be regulated by the HMIRC.

Has industry been in compliance?

As mentioned, the HMIRC assesses claims for exempting disclosure of chemicals and ensuring whether MSDSs are compliant with WHMIS. The HMIRC website provides details on how many decisions they made in the last year and how many decisions were out of compliance with WHMIS requirements:

-    In 2011-2012, 90% were not compliant
-    In 2010-2011, 83% were not compliant
-    In 2009-2010, 77% were not compliant

The MSDSs contains much more information about the material than the label. Clearly, the number of MSDSs out of compliance pose not only a threat to worker safety but also water and environmental protection.

Concerns about the elimination of the Commission

The Commission is an independent and arm’s length agency and with the transfer of its powers directly to the Minister of Health, there are concerns that the Commission will lose its independence.

With a budget of $4.5 million the Commission has 25 staff including four screening officers. The budget bill changes will get rid of the Commission’s four screening officers with only a Chief Screening officer remaining. Based on the numbers of industry MSDSs that were found to be out of compliance with WHMIS requirements, there is a significant need for staff to regulate industries found to be out of compliance.

Is Health Canada able to take on the work of the Commission?

In April, 840 Health Canada employees were told their positions would be cut, and the federal government announced plans for Health Canada’s budget to be slashed by $416.5 million by 2014-2015, with cuts of $200.6 million annually after that. The transfer of the Commission to the Minister of Health raises serious concerns about Health Canada’s ability to adequately fund and carry out the Commissions responsibilities.

The elimination of the HMIRC raises significant concerns particularly within the context of Harper’s broader trend to strip away environmental and water protections through budget cuts and changes to other pieces of environmental legislation.

While the omnibudget bills are a significant violation of democratic principles and a threat to our water sources, Harper seems to be stoking the fires of dissent and solidarity particularly with indigenous communities as seen with the recent surge in strength of the Idle No More movement. This movement is encouraging and provides hope that – despite the abdication of the Harper government’s responsibilities on water and environmental protection - people are rising up to take up the challenge themselves.

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