Environmental bill of rights — What is it and what does it mean for Islanders?

Recently in the provincial legislature, Bill 108 - Environmental Bill of Rights passed unanimously in its second reading. The support it received from all parties really speaks to how the conversation around sustainability has shifted. I’m grateful that discussions on getting serious about protecting our environment — now and into the future — is something all political parties are in agreement about. I thank all the MLAs in the house for voting to support this important piece of legislation. Getting environmental rights secured for P.E.I. is now one step closer to reality. So what exactly does an environmental bill of rights mean for Islanders? Let’s talk.

What are environmental rights and don’t I have them now?

Environmental rights lay the foundation for a healthy and biologically diverse environment for generations to come. It means looking to the future when we make decisions that could potentially impact the environment in a considerable way. With an environmental bill of rights, Islanders can engage more directly in making decisions about how we protect and use our environment. This is not a new idea in Canada. In fact, four other provinces and territories already have these rights. Some have had these rights since the 1970s. Up until now ensuring a healthy environment has been more of an ideal on P.E.I. than a right.

What does participating in environmental decision-making look like?

This bill will create a role for an independent environmental commissioner who is responsible for overseeing these rights. They will also help Islanders understand what is — and what is not — covered under this new law. The bill will also create an online registry for certain types of projects to inform and give Islanders the chance to flag potential problems.

What projects belong on the registry?

The environmental bill of rights will largely only deal with projects that are happening on public land, or protected land. Those projects will be listed on the registry for 30 days to make sure Islanders can review them and have an opportunity to voice any concerns they may have. The bill would not give people the right to weigh in on the majority of decisions made by Islanders on how they manage their own private land. Occasionally, environmentally sensitive projects on private land may require permits under the Environmental Protection Act (EPA). In those cases, there are already existing processes in place to handle those projects. With the new bill, should any of those projects trigger an Environmental Impact Assessment, Islanders could expect the details to be on the registry. An example of that happening could be developing within the buffer of a wetland or watercourse, or anything considered an “undertaking” under the EPA.

If I’m unhappy with a project on the registry, can I stop it?

It depends. If a project on the registry is of concern, five people can reach out to the commissioner and ask for it to be reviewed anytime during that 30-day period. If the commissioner, upon review, finds that a project is not infringing on environmental rights, nothing happens. If the commissioner has concerns, they will write to the minister with advice on how to adjust the project to make it compliant. If government refuses to adjust the project to bring it into compliance, the commissioner could look to have the courts make a ruling. There are four other jurisdictions in Canada where this is currently a possibility.

Oversight instead of hindsight

All too often, when a poor environmental decision is made, the public, and oftentimes ministers themselves, find out about it after the damage has been done. Unfortunately, our current system only allows for hindsight when what we need is oversight. With an environmental bill of rights, the public has the opportunity to flag these issues in advance, and government can intervene to make sure that damage does not happen. And, in the rarest of occasions where government digs its heels in, moves ahead on projects that are contrary to our environmental rights, and refuses to change course to bring the project into compliance, the public will have the ability to truly hold them accountable under this new law.

Introducing an environmental bill of rights to P.E.I. will ensure that our beautiful Island is protected for generations to come. It makes Islanders partners by giving them the opportunity to better understand and take part in decisions impacting our environment. We only get one Island, and this legislation will play a critical role in ensuring the sustainable management of our province into the future.

 

Lynne Lund is MLA for Summerside-Wilmot and Official Opposition critic for environment, water and climate change.

This blog was originally published as Guest Opinion in the Guardian on May 19, 2021.