The Bradford Bypass and the billion dollar company AECOM

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Entering the Greenbelt Ontario sign. Image: Jimmy Emmerson/Flickr

This is part two in a two-part series on the Ontario government's proposed development on the Greenbelt. You can read part one here

In April, Ontario's ministry of transportation, together with the $9.5-billion corporation AECOM, assured the municipal council of Bradford, Ontario that the Bradford Bypass does not require a federal environmental assessment.

At the time, Canada's Environment Minister Jonathan Wilkinson was deciding whether or not the new highway project -- which will cut through Ontario's Holland Marsh to connect Highways 400 and 404 -- required a new federal environmental assessment before it could proceed. The last federal environmental assessment of the project was conducted in 1997, with approval issued in 2002.

Sonia Rankin from AECOM Consulting assured the Bradford West-Gwillimbury Council that the project would not qualify, as, according to her, it does not impact federal lands; is not located within a wildlife area, marine conservation area or migratory bird sanctuary; and, is not on lands administered by Parks Canada. 

The Bradford council is one of the foremost proponents of the Bradford Bypass -- but why was a team from AECOM Consulting at this council meeting?

Significant role

According to the website bradfordbypass.ca, as of September 2020 the "Ontario Ministry of Transportation (MTO) has retained AECOM Canada Ltd. to undertake a Preliminary Design and Class Environmental Assessment (EA) Study for the proposed Highway 400-Highway 404 Link (Bradford Bypass). MTO previously completed a route planning study for the Bradford Bypass in 1997 and a subsequent EA and Recommended Plan were approved in 2002."

Reporter Natasha Philpott elaborated in Newmarket Today on AECOM's role as discussed at that April 20 Bradford council meeting: "The preliminary design EA update study will include field investigations, impact assessment/mitigation, and adherence to environmental commitments, Council was told…[and it] will adhere to all new and existing provincial and federal legislation, including but not limited to the Endangered Species Act (ESA, 2007), Greenbelt Plan, Heritage Act, Fisheries Act, Species at Risk Act (SARA, 2002), and Lake Simcoe Protection Act."

As the ministry of transportation and AECOM predicted, Minister Wilkinson wrote a May 3 letter to Bradford West-Gwillimbury Mayor Rob Keffer, stating that the Bradford Bypass does not warrant a new federal environmental assessment under the Impact Assessment Act.

That means that AECOM's preliminary design environmental assessment -- as commissioned by the Ontario government -- will play a significant role in the project's future.

What is AECOM?

California-based multinational AECOM is a global engineering and infrastructure development giant. It has offices on seven continents, 86,000 employees, and an annual revenue of US$20.2 billion.

A sign of AECOM's power is its consistent listing in ReNew Canada's "Top 100" list -- an annual compilation of the 100 biggest infrastructure projects in Canada and the companies involved in them. ReNew Canada also identifies any company involved in 20 or more such projects.

According to the latest listing, AECOM is involved in 33 of the 100 biggest Canadian infrastructure projects, including the $13 billion Bruce Power Refurbishment project and the $8.7 billion Keeyask Hydroelectric Project, but also highway projects such as the $605 million Highway 427 Expansion project between Toronto and Vaughn, and the $639 million Highway 401 Expansion project in the western part of the GTA.

AECOM is playing a huge role in infrastructure development across Canada, including in the Bradford Bypass, with the Ford government now "streamlining" the provincial environmental assessment process in order to "ensure" that the Bypass, and other projects, get built.

"Streamlined environmental process"

According to the ministry of transportation, the Bradford Bypass project team includes the ministry itself, AECOM and sub-consultants hired by AECOM.

In an email, ministry spokesperson Astrid Poei said the proposed changes to Ontario's environmental assessment process  "would balance our responsibility to safeguard the environment and meaningfully engage with Indigenous communities and stakeholders, with our commitment to build quickly."

Poei said this does not mean the ministry intends to relax environmental protections, but "a streamlined environmental process would allow construction to start earlier, without compromising any of the environmental mitigation work."

However, that "streamlining" has already taken its toll at the Greenbelt Council, which advises the province on land-use issues and conservation of the Greenbelt.

In December 2020, Chair David Crombie and six other members of the Greenbelt Council resigned in protest of proposed reforms to environmental laws they said would gut environmental protections. At the time, Crombie described the reforms as "high-level bombing [that] needs to be resisted."

In May, the Ontario government replaced Crombie with retired Ontario PC MPP Norm Sterling as chair of the council. The former conservative politician actually voted against the creation of the Greenbelt in 2005.

The government has also been heavily criticized for its use of controversial Minister's Zoning Orders -- 45 issued to date -- which fast-track development in a given area, regardless of local rules for land-use planning decisions.

Recently, the government announced that it would add two acres of land to the Greenbelt for every acre developed through a zoning order. All three opposition parties denounced the measure, saying the zoning orders allow harmful development projects to go ahead without proper environmental consultation.

As quoted by The Globe and Mail, NDP environment critic Sandy Shaw said the government "is letting developers have at extremely valuable and environmentally sensitive lands, and pretending to replace it with less valuable, less ecologically-significant land." 

She pointed to "extreme concern" that this announcement is "a warning sign that Ford is about to give more extraordinary MZOs so developers can pave over wetlands and precious farmland."

Ontario engineers say 1997 study "out of date"

On June 10, the Ontario Society of Professional Engineers (OSPE) issued a statement voicing concerns about the Bradford Bypass, and its CEO Sandro Perruzza was interviewed by the National Observer.

"Before the project should proceed, an updated environment assessment (should) be done by qualified engineers," Perruza told the National Observer. The 1997 studies are "out of date," the OSPE statement said.

"The [environmental assessment] process and requirements have changed drastically throughout this time frame, and so has the environment."

The Observer noted: "Perruzza said OSPE decided to weigh in on the bypass based on concerns from members, and input from the organization's task forces on infrastructure and the environment. The evidence they examined involved 'things that are in the public domain, as well as things that perhaps aren't in the public domain,' he added."

Perruzza acknowledged that the bypass could create jobs for engineers, "but said the profession also has a duty to protect the public and the environment."

While not calling for the Bradford Bypass to be cancelled, Perruzza and the OSPE noted that "key information about the bypass remains missing."

In response to a question about whether the OSPE has doubts about the pending AECOM study, Perruzza said the organization has "no concerns about the [environmental assessment] being conducted by Aecom Engineering." 

"We are not officially opposed to the Bradford Bypass, we are just raising a concern that the decision to move forward was based on an old environmental assessment," he said in an email.

Under the radar?

While OSPE has "no concerns" about the environmental assessment being conducted by AECOM, others might have, if they knew about it.

Until now, it appears the only media outlets that have mentioned AECOM's involvement are Bradford Today and Newmarket Today through coverage of that April 20 meeting, and a mention in Ontario Construction News.

On May 26, the Wilderness Committee issued a comprehensive update on the Bradford Bypass, which is well worth reading.

"Highways invite land speculation and facilitate urban sprawl, eroding protection of the Greenbelt. York Region recently requested that the province allow development in protected Greenbelt lands along all 400 series highways," the statement reads.

 To that end, it's worth noting that AECOM has a division called AECOM Capital, which is "the investment arm of AECOM that invests in and manages the development of real estate."

When Doug Ford says of the Greenbelt, "We want more houses out there, more condominiums, more townhouses," that must be music to AECOM ears.

Canadian freelance writer Joyce Nelson is the author of seven books. She can be reached via www.joycenelson.ca

Image: Jimmy Emmerson/Flickr    

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