What Are Environmental Assessments For?

In the process of replying to the thread about streamlined Environmental Assessments, I made remarks that deserve a post of their own.

My concern is that a lot of bilge has flowed recently about what the EA process is supposed to protect, and the strong implication is that if we don’t hurt any plants or wildlife, the EA has done its job. Moreover, public input is seen as a nuisance holding up much-needed works.

My criticism lies with the underlying assumption that somehow the professionals present perfect transit schemes that, but for rabblerousers like me, would have made Toronto a paragon among transit cities worldwide years ago. This is complete nonsense, and many of the fights that have entangled EAs have turned on the absence of good planning and design, not to mention, until recently, complete ignorance about alternatives in transit technology.

Wearing a Transit City hat, yes, it would be wonderful to see these lines built as fast as possible, but wearing my advocate’s hat I look at the fact that there was virtually no consultation before the network was announced. This time, it happens to be a scheme I support, but who knows what a new political crew might bring?

The centre poles on St. Clair are a prime example. Clearly, the decision on that design had been taken long before the first public consultation, and the staff were absolutely immovable on the subject. This design has been repeated on Fleet Street.

I understand that the new street lights for St. Clair had already been purchased, or at least selected, even though the project didn’t have official approval. The fact that they have had to be replaced at least once, possibly twice because the designs were unsuitable, tells me all I need to know about the expertise that went into that choice. The politicians who are loathe to criticize staff realized only after the line was up and running that the design could have been better, and even this was not enough to change the style for the phase now underway.

Why should we care about street lights? Well, these lights were the underlying reason for the centre poles because originally there would be far fewer side poles much further apart with much more powerful, but fewer lamps. That scheme didn’t work out, and the side poles are in fact at the same spacing as the centre ones. This is but one example of the stupidity that can occur even when the technical folks are challenged, and much worse design flaws may fly through under the guise of an expedited review.

Those centre poles, in turn, limit the ability of buses and emergency vehicles to use the right-of-way. Word on the street is that the emergency services were told to shut up and accept the design even though they didn’t like it.

If we actually had a meaningful planning process in this city, we would discuss design issues and neighbourhood impacts. I’m not saying we should stop projects in their tracks, but that often the pros get it wrong, and there needs to be a mechanism for review and fine tuning.

There are specific provisions about the content of an EA, from the Environmental Assessment Act (RSO 1990, Chapter E18):

(2) […] the environmental assessment must consist of,

(a) a description of the purpose of the undertaking;

(b) a description of and a statement of the rationale for,

(i) the undertaking,

(ii) the alternative methods of carrying out the undertaking, and

(iii) the alternatives to the undertaking;

(c) a description of,

(i) the environment that will be affected or that might reasonably be expected to be affected, directly or indirectly,

(ii) the effects that will be caused or that might reasonably be expected to be caused to the environment, and

(iii) the actions necessary or that may reasonably be expected to be necessary to prevent, change, mitigate or remedy the effects upon or the effects that might reasonably be expected upon the environment, by the undertaking, the alternative methods of carrying out the undertaking and the alternatives to the undertaking;

(d) an evaluation of the advantages and disadvantages to the environment of the undertaking, the alternative methods of carrying out the undertaking and the alternatives to the undertaking; and

(e) a description of any consultation about the undertaking by the proponent and the results of the consultation.

Just because you want to build something doesn’t absolve you of the need to review alternatives and consult with people.

If we build infrastructure that harms neighbourhoods, this will have an impact on quality of life, on economic activity, even on the attractiveness of the transit system. As I have said before, “the environment” includes neighbourhoods.

It is worth quoting the definition of “environment” from the Environmental Assessment Act:

1. (1) In this Act,
“environment” means,

(a) air, land or water,
(b) plant and animal life, including human life,
(c) the social, economic and cultural conditions that influence the life of humans or a community,
(d) any building, structure, machine or other device or thing made by humans,
(e) any solid, liquid, gas, odour, heat, sound, vibration or radiation resulting directly or indirectly from human activities, or
(f) any part or combination of the foregoing and the interrelationships between any two or more of them,

in or of Ontario;

Quite clearly, the Act is intended to protect not only the flora and fauna, but also the communities affected by a project. Anyone taking the narrow view hasn’t read the legislation.

I’m all for moving transit projects forward quickly, but we must get past the idea that just because it’s a transit project, it must be ideal and we cannot criticize it. If the new timelines are to be enforced, then the TTC, GO Transit, Metrolinx and their armies of consultants will have to be much, much more responsive when issues are raised. Today, we can wait months for feedback on proposals even from “friendly” EAs where the staff actively try to engage the community. The new timelines invite staff to run the clock and say “sorry, that may be a great idea, but we had to file our documents last week”.

This is a recipe for exactly the sort of contention that led to the Environmental Assessment Act in the first place, and it will give transit projects an unjustified bad name in the very communities they seek to serve.