Environmental enforcement data in Canada

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Jonathan Brun from Nimonik.ca and William Amos, LLB, of EcoJustice.ca, recently dicussed matters concerning the current access to environmental enforcement data in Canada. The discussion is based on a 2011 report by EcoJustice on environmental enforcement and addresses the potential of using Open Government and Open Data to improve environmental enforcement across the country. This discussion is a follow-up to our recent blog post on open data and the environment found here.

The simple conclusion is that the government of Canada does not publish environmental enforcement and performance data in a rigorous and accessible manner. It is spotty, hard to find and often out of date. As canadian industry continues to develop and fiscal restraint is imposed on government departments, cost effective solutions for environmental enforcement are becoming more and more important. To help lower costs and improve compliance, both Nimonik and EcoJustice firmly believes that the first step is pro-active disclosure by the Canadian government of enforcement activity.

As a parallel, when health infractions for restaurant inspections in Toronto were made in public, costs for enforcement were substantially reduced as restaurants required less follow-up inspections for warnings. We believe this is equally applicable to environmental infractions for industry.

Some progress is being made, EcoJustice.ca recently managed to obtain the mining effluent data under the National Pollutant Release Inventory and is pushing hard for more information to be published. Open Data activists across the country are working hard on this issue and Nimonik performed a number of requests to compile our 2010 report on environmental fines in Canada (source data here). Even government is admitting their failure to control companies on environmental infractions and breaches of permits is rampant and endemic to the government bureaucracy.

Last year, the Québec sustainable development commissionar plainly outlined the failure of the provincial government to enforce permit requirements and existing laws (Report found here in french and related slides).  Similar conclusions were found by the Canadian Sustainable Development commissioner (CBC News) where he explains,

“Many of the weaknesses we found in Transport Canada were identified more than five years ago and have yet to be fixed,” the report said.

Vaughan pointed to an incident in Western Canada where sodium hydroxide was put into a truck that was not designed for it.

“It was with an aluminium container, and the truck literally dissolved about 10 kilometres down the highway,” Vaughan said.

Full Report can be found here.

This must change. In the Nimonik interview above, William Amos discusses the ECHO database in the United States, which allows anyone to quickly find companies with environmental fines and the impacts in their neighbourhood. Why can this not be done in Canada? Or elsewhere? Of course, the problems of access to environmental enforcement results is not isolated to Canada, a recent Global Mail article outlines similar failures to publish information in Australia. Many governments around the world are starting to publish more and more information, the Canadian Federal Government manages an open data portal, as does the US government – but environmental data has yet to become highly accessible. As William Amos states, we should be “demanding environmental data from our government”.

Yet, publishing information on environmental data is only half the battle, the other half is making the data useful to the average person. In Canada, two sites help citizens find out more about environmental pollution near them. Emitter.ca maps out NPRI air emissions across the country and remtl.ca shows you contaminated sites in the city of Montreal. While these sites are fairly simple, they are a start. We can easily imagine bigger projects that would allow users to be notified when a spill or change in pollution in their neighbourhood occurs or correlate data with health information and quality of life statistics.

To fight pollution in the 21st century, government needs to use 21st century tools. Federal, provincial and municipal governments need to pro-actively publish online environmental enforcement data in an open and standardized format and encourage citizens to make it easy to consult and understand.