Democrats urge Biden administration to back EPA union in contract negotiations

News Feed
Monday, September 26, 2022

More than 80 congressional Democrats on Monday called on Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator Michael Regan to back the agency’s union in contract negotiations.  The American Federation of Government Employees Council 238, the biggest union representing EPA members, is in negotiations with agency management for a new contract, with its current contract set to expire in 2024.  Rep. Paul Tonko (D-N.Y.), chair of the House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Environment and Climate Change, and Rep. Diana DeGette (D-Colo.), chair of the Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations, led a letter to Regan, which was first reported by The Washington Post. Among their demands is the addition of so-called blind hiring practices, or the removal of personal information from applicant resumes. Advocates say the practice prevents any unconscious biases from affecting the hiring process.  It also backs EPA employees’ call for wages to match their workloads.  “For example, according to several of our constituents who are currently EPA employees, they are stagnating at the GS-12 level, while completing the work of a GS-13,” they wrote. “The practice of keeping employees at a GS-12, with pay and benefits of a GS-12, will only risk draining the EPA’s workforce as employees seek better opportunities with room for growth in the private sector.”  Signers of the letter include members of the party’s progressive wing with a history of backing labor rights, including Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.). However, it was also signed by moderate Democrats such as Reps. Tim Ryan and Shontel Brown of Ohio.  President Biden has vowed to be the “most pro-union president” in history, and organized labor has frequently pressed him to hold to the promise. Earlier this month, the administration mediated negotiations with rail carriers and railroad worker unions, who reached a tentative agreement the day before they were set to strike.   In February, Biden signed an executive order aimed at making it easier for construction workers to unionize by increasing the federal use of project labor agreements, or collective bargaining agreements between federal contractors and unions.   The Hill has reached out to the EPA for comment. 

More than 80 congressional Democrats on Monday called on Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator Michael Regan to back the agency’s union in contract negotiations. The American Federation of Government Employees Council 238, the biggest union representing EPA members, is in negotiations with agency management for a new contract, with its current contract set to expire...

Read the full story here.
Photos courtesy of

Are Police Helicopter Fleets Worth the Money?

This piece was published originally by Capital & Main. Los Angeles’ police and sheriff’s departments have amassed among the largest helicopter units of any local law enforcement agencies in the world, costing city and county residents tens of millions of dollars each year for patrols that disproportionately hover over low income communities of color, according to government records. […]

This piece was published originally by Capital & Main. Los Angeles’ police and sheriff’s departments have amassed among the largest helicopter units of any local law enforcement agencies in the world, costing city and county residents tens of millions of dollars each year for patrols that disproportionately hover over low income communities of color, according to government records. The helicopters have hovered for decades with little evidence of their necessity. The departments’ claims about the effectiveness of aerial patrols rely mainly on studies they conducted more than 50 years ago. Recent, comprehensive tests suggest no correlation between the use of aerial patrols and declines in crime rates, and that such patrols cost more than they’re worth in terms of benefits, according to a review of the research and interviews with experts.  A university research team is looking at whether the flights may be disrupting sleep and causing health problems, with disproportionate harms in low income Black and brown neighborhoods. And advocates like Beni Benitez, 22, are calling to shift funds out of helicopter units and into improving access to education, housing and other necessities. “Why is it that we’re still funding these systems that keep oppressing us, and hurting us and harming us, when the solution is investing in us?” he said.  When a Hughes Aircraft Company salesman pitched Los Angeles’ police and sheriffs on a “flying police car” in the mid-1960s, urban unrest, especially the Watts revolt in 1965, convinced both agencies to test frequent aerial patrols as a way to control racial justice protests by surveilling neighborhoods and coordinating officers on the ground. Los Angeles law enforcement agencies’ desire to test helicopters coincided with President Lyndon B. Johnson declaring a “war on crime” and setting aside money for local law enforcement agencies.  The Los Angeles County Sheriff’s rented three Hughes helicopters and obtained the biggest law enforcement grant ever awarded by the federal government to test patrols in 1966. The authors of the report on the pilot program, Project Sky Knight, claimed chopper surveillance could prevent crime and “multiply force” by making law enforcement visible and audible across wide swaths of the landscape. The LAPD conducted a similar federally funded test of helicopter patrols soon after, supported by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, which also touted the benefits of aerial policing, including for reducing property crimes and increasing arrests.  Once effectiveness was “proven” by both agencies, Aviation Unit Chief Hugh MacDonald, who helped spearhead Sky Knight, retired from the sheriff’s department and joined Hughes Aircraft in using the reports to market helicopters to other law enforcement agencies, hundreds of which adopted the aircraft. The federal government continues to fund local law enforcement helicopter units. The Justice Department has given more than $2 million to such units since 2008. The Department of Defense has also donated more than 300 “demilitarized” helicopters, originally valued at $94 million overall, to sheriff’s, state police and highway patrol departments in 30 states since the 1990s.  Florida, Alabama, California, Tennessee and Texas sheriffs have received most of those helicopters. Los Angeles’ police and sheriff’s departments now maintain at least 17 helicopters each and keep those choppers in the air for regular day and night patrols. This drawing of an aircraft hovering over residential areas topped a 1969 flyer distributed by activists in protest of proposals to build a helicopter landing site near Los Angeles’ Elysian Park. To this day, the LAPD’s Air Support Division defines its “functional objectives” based on the early study, according to its policy manual. The department also promotes the NASA study on its website.  But even if the findings weren’t outdated, they were likely inaccurate to begin with, experts said.  The federal government itself has acknowledged that “historically, the debate regarding the benefits and costs of airborne policing has been void of rigorous evaluation and empirical data,” according to the National Institute of Justice’s most recent review of law enforcement helicopter operations in 2012. Nicholas Shapiro, a University of California, Los Angeles, professor who is currently studying the health and climate impacts of law enforcement helicopters in Southern California, said, “There’s just huge logical leaps” in the early studies.  Shapiro’s research team identified fundamental problems with the crime predictions and comparisons underpinning the LAPD helicopter study, such as conflating increased arrests with prevented crime and comparing real crime rates to modeled predictions. The study’s authors also excluded data from 1965, when the Watts riots occurred, because they acknowledged this data would skew their results.  Elliot Framan, a researcher who worked on the 1970 study of LAPD’s helicopter program, said an updated review would be warranted. “Clearly, police procedures and equipment, much less the situation on the ground, have changed enormously,” he said. “A new study might be more effective and worthwhile.”  Paul Whitehead, a sociologist and professor emeritus at the University of Western Ontario, agrees that the early studies were flawed. Whitehead was invited by the city of London, Ontario, Canada, to conduct a more recent study of helicopter patrol effectiveness in 2000.  The early studies had “very poor research designs,” Whitehead said, which “lead to serious questions about the validity of their findings.” Many were “done with the purpose of finding the evidence that helicopters improved policing. And everything was aimed at reaching that conclusion even before the first piece of data was collected,” he said.  As such, Whitehead sought to address those deficiencies in his own study, which remains the most comprehensive of its kind.  Whitehead found that helicopters did not reduce crime rates and, because they were so expensive to buy and operate, any cost savings that came from using them for patrols did not come close to equaling their expense.  “Do helicopter patrols reduce crime? The answer is no,” Whitehead said.  Since then, a more limited test in 2019 by four police districts in Sweden similarly found that helicopter patrols had no significant effect in deterring crime. As Los Angeles’ helicopter patrols persist, some residents are raising concerns that the flights may be disproportionately targeting Black and Latino neighborhoods, harming the mental and physical health of their residents.  Over the years, the LAPD has internally tracked limited data on its helicopter flights, and used that data, along with predictive policing algorithms, to plan hundreds of flights each month. The department flew more than 6,000 of these data-driven missions in 2021, which is a 30% increase since 2019. But many of the metrics the department documents replicate problems from its early study and appear to generate patrols mostly targeting low income communities of color. This use of data “provides a sort of technological veneer to reaffirm the kinds of policing practices they’ve already been historically engaged in,” said Andrea Miller, a Pennsylvania State University professor who studies the relationship between technology and security. Miller said that when police departments like the LAPD use past crime data to predict future crimes and decide where to concentrate their patrols, it creates a cycle wherein the most policed communities continue to be overpoliced. Areas in South Los Angeles, including the 77th Street, Southwest and Newton police divisions that cover neighborhoods including Hyde Park, Crenshaw and Historic South Central, are among those most frequently patrolled by police helicopters and for the longest time, according to LAPD records.  Residents have noticed the persistence of these patrols.  Neighborhood associations have protested against law enforcement helicopters since the flights began in the 1960s, mainly because of air and noise pollution. At the time, Silver Lake residents thwarted the LAPD’s effort to build a heliport in Elysian Park. But by the 1980s, the police department built the world’s largest law enforcement helipad in downtown, allowing for today’s around-the-clock flights.  “I feel like I’ve never lived in a place where helicopters weren’t disturbing the peace,” said Tauheedah Shakur, 26. She grew up in South Los Angeles but recently moved to the Westlake neighborhood near MacArthur Park because of rising housing costs. Shakur said that helicopter noise and lights often wake her in the night, heightening her anxiety, which can cause panic attacks. She worries that police officers observing from the sky could someday mistake her for a threat.  “I’m just afraid that one day they’ll get trigger happy from the helicopter and shoot me in my community. These are constant things I worry about,” Shakur said. Concerns like those are what a team of researchers at UCLA are setting out to study.  Environmental scientist Nicholas Shapiro is examining whether Southern California’s law enforcement helicopters are disrupting sleep and negatively affecting mental and physical health, educational attainment and workplace performance.  Gina Poe, a UCLA neuroscientist specializing in sleep studies, and Kate McInerny, a UCLA student, are working with Shapiro to measure how loud the helicopters sound at different distances and altitudes. They will pair that sonic map with flight records to figure out how much the noise disturbs sleep in various neighborhoods.  The researchers are also studying whether there are racialized disparities in where agencies are concentrating patrols. Their preliminary analysis suggests patrols tend to fly more frequently over Black communities, for longer durations and at lower altitudes, which could have greater health effects. Although the Federal Aviation Administration typically regulates how low aircraft can fly, law enforcement helicopters are exempt from those restrictions and often hover below the altitudes permitted for other flights.  Flying low has caused at least one situation when helicopter noise prevented officers on the ground from hearing each other, with deadly consequences. In July 2021, LAPD officers in two separate cars responded to a call about a man with a knife. As the helicopter chopped overhead, the officers who arrived later couldn’t hear confirmation that the man was no longer armed and fatally shot him. The California Department of Justice is investigating the shooting. The LAPD did not respond to Capital & Main’s questions and said it was “unable to accommodate [our] request” for a ride-along on a helicopter flight. Capital and Main Kenneth Mejia, an accountant recently elected to oversee Los Angeles’ finances as city controller, said that in his new position he will audit the police department’s performance, with a focus on helicopter operations, because they are an expensive part of everyday life for Angelenos. Mejia said a proper audit of the helicopter unit would look at how funds are being spent and determine if any of that money could be better allocated to other services, departments, resources or assets, such as housing assistance, animal services or youth development. “Everyone wants to know, why do we have so many helicopters?” Mejia said. “Is that money being used efficiently? Effectively? Is crime going down? Are the helicopters actually doing something? If so, show us the numbers.” The police budget in Los Angeles is currently around $3.2 billion, almost half of the city’s discretionary funding and 30% of the entire budget. Costs include the initial purchase of helicopters and specialized software and equipment like cameras and searchlights. Then there are ongoing expenses like maintenance, insurance and fuel, as well as the costs of training and employing flight personnel and outfitting them in safety gear. High costs have led some agencies to scale back their helicopter operations in recent years. The police department in Kansas City, Missouri, was an early adopter that rapidly expanded its unit in the 1970s. But by 1995, the department reduced its aerial personnel from 30 to eight. And in 2001, it shrunk its fleet from seven to three helicopters. In Los Angeles, neither the police nor the sheriff’s department release their total helicopter budgets, and public city and county databases do not clearly identify expenses associated with aerial operations. But Capital & Main identified at least a portion of those costs by compiling city spending records. The LAPD’s helicopter unit cost at least $215 million over the last decade. The LAPD Air Support Division spent at least $27 million in 2021, including roughly $7 million for new helicopters and equipment, $5.2 million for maintenance, $3.6 million for parts, $1.5 million for labor, $1.3 million for fuel and at least $8.5 million in payroll, according to city records.  Since 2009, the LAPD has spent at least $43 million on helicopters, equipment and training. Some specialized equipment has also been donated by the Air Support Angels Foundation valued at $138,300 in 2022 and a total of almost $50,000 in the three years prior.  The city of Los Angeles also spent about $77 million on maintenance, $50 million on parts, $27 million on labor and $19 million on fuel for the LAPD’s helicopters between 2010 and 2021, according to city records. The Los Angeles City Council created a Youth Development Department in 2021, and funded it with $1.4 million. This year the council increased the budget to $2.5 million. That is roughly equal to the cost of fuel and infrared cameras for helicopter policing last year. Capital & Main requested budget and operations records from the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Aero Bureau but the department did not provide them. In 2020, the Sheriff’s said that helicopter maintenance alone costs at least $23 million per year. The Sheriff’s total budget this year was $3.6 billion, but because its Aero Bureau is paid for through a “specialized and unallocated” account, it’s unclear how much of that is spent on helicopters.  The Aero Bureau has been accused of misspending in the past. In the 2010s, retired Sergeant Richard Gurr alleged that a $29 million Board of Supervisors-approved contract to update 12 helicopters included millions in overcharges and unnecessary equipment. Los Angeles County’s auditor-controller investigated this and other alleged improprieties in 2012 and found that most were unsubstantiated, although there were “weaknesses” in the bureau’s purchasing practices, such as a lack of competitive bidding for repair services.  Last year, the county audited the Sheriff’s Department and found that it failed to get permission before building a helicopter landing pad on private property near Sheriff Alex Villanueva’s home. Villanueva lost his reelection campaign and will be replaced by Robert Luna, a former Long Beach police chief.  The Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department declined to respond to Capital & Main’s questions and requests for public records. Copyright Capital & Main

Ontario is about to slash environmental protections. It already wasn’t funding them, auditor general says

By Emma McIntosh and Fatima Syed As the Ford government readies to weaken environmental protections with its housing bill, Ontario’s auditor general finds the government is woefully mismanaging floods, the Niagara Escarpment and invasive species

By Emma McIntosh and Fatima Syed As Doug Ford’s government gets set to slash environmental protections, Ontario’s auditor general has found the province is already mismanaging them, from flood risks to protected land and invasive species. Earlier this week, the Ontario government passed development-friendly legislation that also gutted conservation authorities, agencies that oversee key watersheds and floodplains. It also stands to finalize a flurry of changes early next month, including opening parts of the protected Greenbelt for development and watering down protections for wetlands that mitigate floods, among other things. Scientists have told The Narwhal those changes will put Ontario at higher risk of flooding as green spaces and wetlands that absorb rain and snow are lost. The thing is, auditor general Bonnie Lysyk reported Wednesday, Ontario’s flood management practices are already underfunded and disorganized. The province is also failing to protect the Niagara Escarpment, an important and iconic green space in southern Ontario. It’s also doing little to stop the spread of invasive species, some of which are currently on sale at home improvement stores, Lysyk said. Taken together, Lysyk’s findings show a province that is under-resourcing and mismanaging environmental measures across the board — and has been for decades. Her report also highlights a severe lack of transparency in the government’s communication with both the auditor general’s office and the public about environment and energy issues. And as Ontario heads towards an energy supply crisis, she noted, the province is still missing a long-term energy plan.  We’re breaking news in Ontario The Narwhal’s Ontario bureau is telling environment stories you won’t find anywhere else. Keep up with the scoops by signing up for a weekly dose of our independent journalism. We’re breaking news in Ontario The Narwhal’s Ontario bureau is telling environment stories you won’t find anywhere else. Keep up with the latest scoops by signing up for a weekly dose of our independent journalism. “Funding and where money is allocated is a government choice,” Lysyk said. “It just needs to be transparent to people why those choices are being made.” In a media scrum after the report’s release, Environment Minister David Piccini was asked whether the province is trying to protect the environment at all. He insisted the answer is yes. “The government cares deeply,” Piccini said, adding a new climate plan is in the works. Ford’s team has only released one climate plan since coming to power in 2018, promising another for years. “Protecting the environment we depend on is not a concern for them … other than damage control when they get called out on it,” interim NDP Leader Peter Tabuns told reporters. Many of the problems documented in the auditor general’s report stretch back many years, predating the Ford government. But they’ve continued under the Progressive Conservatives — and in some cases have gotten worse. Ontario auditor general Bonnie Lysyk’s annual report, published on Wednesday, includes several environmentally-themed audits. Photo: Frank Gunn / The Canadian Press Liberal MPP John Fraser admitted to reporters Wednesday his party “didn’t always get everything right as a government.” But, he said, “we did create the Greenbelt,” adding the current government isn’t being transparent enough with the public. Ontario Green Party leader Mike Schreiner said the report shows the province as a whole needs to have “a complete rethink” about its long-term planning on environment and energy policies. “We know that the severity and frequency of extreme weather events is going to accelerate due to the climate crisis,” he told reporters. “The fact that they still don’t have a plan is reckless, it’s risky and it’s completely irresponsible.”  While the province is underfunding environmental measures, it’s yet to find money for its own pet projects as well, Lysyk found. The Bradford Bypass highway project is set to cost far more than expected, she reported, and Ontario’s Ministry of Transportation doesn’t have the money it needs to push forward the bypass or another key infrastructure promise, Highway 413. Here’s everything you need to know about the auditor general’s findings. Ontario’s proposed Bradford Bypass will cost more than expected, according to a report from the auditor general: her office estimates between $2 billion and $4 billion, far greater than the $800 million Transportation Minister Caroline Mulroney stated in 2021. Photo: Lars Hagberg / The Canadian Press The cost of Ontario’s Bradford Bypass has grown The Bradford Bypass will cost more than the Ontario government has disclosed publicly, Lysyk found in an audit of the province’s highway planning. Her office’s total estimated cost of the project, which would cut through the Holland Marsh section of Ontario’s Greenbelt, is between $2 billion and $4 billion. That’s far greater than the $800 million Transportation Minister Caroline Mulroney told the public in 2021.  The auditor general’s estimated cost for Highway 413, meanwhile, is listed as “greater than $4 billion” — in line with what Mulroney has said, but lower than previous estimates from former Liberal transportation minister Steven Del Duca, who pegged it as between $6 billion and $10 billion.  Lysyk said it’s normal for estimates to evolve over time and the ones in the report are still rough, but that “the public has the right to know.”  As of August 2022, the transportation ministry hadn’t requested funding to actually build the 413 because it’s still being designed and is still under review from the federal Impact Assessment Agency, which is looking into how it might affect endangered species habitat. No construction can begin until the federal probe is done.  Even if Highway 413 is out of the equation, the ministry doesn’t have enough funding to accommodate its other priority highway projects, the auditor general found.  In a response included in the audit, the transportation ministry said it “agrees to take steps to implement the recommended action items” when government objectives clash with advice from bureaucrats. Ontario Environment Minister David Piccini told reporters that, despite the auditor general’s findings, the province “cares deeply” about the environment. Photo: Carlos Osorio / The Narwhal Ontario’s Niagara Escarpment isn’t properly protected The Niagara Escarpment is among the most defining natural features of southern Ontario. The portion of the rocky ridge that’s protected under provincial law starts at Niagara Falls, stretching around Lake Ontario and up to the Bruce Peninsula. Though the province’s protections end there, the landform itself goes on through Manitoulin Island before dipping into the United States. It’s beloved by hikers and climbers for its cliffs, caves, ancient trees and waterfalls, and crucial to the 70 species at risk living along it. The Ontario government created a plan to protect the escarpment, a UNESCO biosphere reserve, nearly 50 years ago. That included the creation of a Niagara Escarpment Commission aimed at overseeing efforts to steward the land. Today, the escarpment makes up part of Ontario’s Greenbelt.  But both the government and the commission are failing to actually protect the escarpment, Lysyk found. Nearly all development permits on the escarpment have been approved in the past five years. The province has allowed industry to create and expand pits and quarries for extracting aggregate — crushed stone and gravel used in construction — despite the harm they can cause to species and the ecosystem. The commission has cut environmental monitoring because Ontario’s Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry doesn’t give it enough funding for the staff or resources it needs: its budget has been cut four times since 1996, including once under the Ford government. The lone specialist tasked with environmental monitoring left in 2015 and hasn’t been replaced. The commission hasn’t tracked the cumulative impact of the more than 34,000 development permits it has issued since 1975, the auditor general said. Ontario’s auditor general found that nearly all development permits on the Niagara Escarpment have been approved in the past five years. Milton, Ont., has lost 22 per cent of its green spaces to development over the past 20 years. Photos: Christopher Katsarov Luna / The Narwhal Over time, the Ford government and the previous Liberal government failed to enforce protections on the escarpment, the audit showed. Though reports of possible violations of the rules have climbed 82 per cent in the last five years, the government hasn’t charged anyone for doing so since 2014. Only 1.1 per cent of development permits on the escarpment have been denied, and in some cases the auditor general reviewed, applications were approved even if they clashed with environmental protection rules. Roughly a third of the 54 aggregate operations on the escarpment are also allowed to extract as much as they want, with no limits, Lysk found. The government has only inspected about a quarter of those sites within the last five years, and found two weren’t following the rules.  Though ministry staff recommended the previous Liberal government ban new aggregate extraction on the escarpment in 2017, that didn’t happen. Instead, that year, the Liberals changed the plan so applications for development on the escarpment can’t be denied solely because of endangered species habitat. The result, the audit found, is that 27 in a sample of 45 development permits from 2020 to 2021 involved harm to species at risk.  In a response included in the audit, the Niagara Escarpment Commission said it would continue to work with the province to secure funding. The Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry acknowledged “significant challenges” but didn’t commit to restoring that funding or making improvements.  Speaking to reporters, Natural Resources Minister Graydon Smith placed the blame for issues with the escarpment on the commission itself, an arms-length agency. But he said he’s “open to a conversation” about giving the commission more funding. Eugenia Falls in Ontario, along the Niagara Escarpment. The province hasn’t enforced its own rules aimed at protecting the escarpment for years, Ontario auditor general Bonnie Lysyk has found. Photo: The Canadian Press Flood prevention and mitigation in Ontario is a mess The provincial government’s oversight of flood mitigation and prevention in cities is severely underfunded and disorganized, the auditor general found — which is concerning since the risk of flooding is set to increase as climate change fuels more intense rainfalls.  The report found Ontario isn’t doing enough to “reduce the risk of urban flooding, nor to provide homeowners, municipalities and other decision-makers the guidance and information they need to reduce their risks.” Lysyk considers it a problem that no one government ministry is responsible for urban flooding in the province. Four ministries — environment, natural resources, municipal affairs and infrastructure — are involved, and have never clarified or coordinated their roles in flood-risk management.  The audit noted this gappy system leaves Ontarians in major urban areas vulnerable to the worst impacts of flooding. These include an “ambiguous” building code that leaves buildings, particularly basements, prone to flood damage.  A flooded parking garage in Kingston, Ont., in 2011. Ontario’s management of flooding is underfunded and disorganized, the province’s auditor general found. Photo: Lars Hagberg / The Canadian Press As well, Ontario’s towns and cities receive “contradictory” and “inconsistent” guidance and direction from the provincial government, Lysk said, and are still relying on outdated flood data that leave them unable to map urban flood risk areas. Municipalities also don’t have reliable funding for stormwater infrastructure from either the federal or provincial government.  Ontario’s auditor general also commented on Kashechewan First Nation: the community of 2,000 residents near James Bay experienced severe floodings four times in the last five years and has been evacuated three times, the total costs for which are not known. The audit highlighted how other First Nations communities in the region — which also experienced significant flooding in the past year and are accruing great costs for municipalities — are not getting the provincial support or funding they need. Meanwhile, Lysyk said, natural flood protections — like green spaces and wetlands that absorb precipitation — are rapidly being lost, which will make flood risk worse. By 2015, the province had lost nearly three-quarters of its wetlands. One problem is how infrequently the value and fragility of wetlands is assessed. Only 30 were evaluated in the past decade; only one has been evaluated in the past year. Lysyk noted that remaining wetlands are now at increased risk from development — the auditor general reported the government’s Bill 23, passed earlier this week, will weaken the evaluation system that assesses how proposed development could affect Ontario’s wetlands. The Ford government’s changes means wetlands will be evaluated individually, not as complexes that work together to absorb water and provide habitat for animals, including species at risk. This makes it likely that many small wetlands won’t be eligible for protection and, as the auditor general wrote, will damage Ontario’s “capacity to reduce flooding.” Green spaces in Ontario’s urban centres are also being lost to development due to “weak provincial land-use planning direction,” the report found. Over the past 20 years, Ontario’s biggest urban centres have lost six per cent of their green spaces, with the biggest losses in Windsor (18 per cent) and Milton (22 per cent). The audit directly links this to the Ford government’s growth plan, which “does not set specific targets or limits on the amount of green space” that can be developed.  The Garner Marsh in Hamilton, Ont. Natural green spaces like wetlands that mitigate floods are rapidly being lost in Ontario. Photo: Christopher Katsarov Luna / The Narwhal “The province is well aware of the need to do more to address [flooding],” the auditor general’s report said, noting there have been four government reports and plans identifying a series of actions the government could take to alleviate the risk of urban flooding in the past four years — including the Ford government’s one and only environment plan, released in 2018. The commitments made in that plan — or any of the others — to mitigate flood risk haven’t been met, Lysyk wrote.  “Ontario is the only province without an organization that provides climate services to the decision-makers that need them,” she said. Ontario’s biggest power generator isn’t prepared for a likely energy shortfall The hydroelectricity produced by Ontario’s largest power generator has not been “effectively utilized” over the last seven years, the report found, with a significant shortfall in energy production, especially considering demand.  Between 2015 and 2021, Ontario Power Generation only used about half the capacity of its hydroelectric stations, Lysyk wrote, adding the company “has not conducted a detailed analysis of why there is a significant difference between installed capacity and actual generation.” Ontario Power Generation offered some explanation, listed in the audit. Under-production could be due to water issues, such as availability or conservation, or station-specific issues such as a mandate to run only during peak demand periods. Ontario Power Generation said maintenance requirements could also have been a problem: the report outlines concerns that about 20 per cent of the generator’s stations have not been assessed for maintenance in a decade or longer. Two of the largest stations, both built in the 1990s, have not been reviewed properly in 18 years.  Between 2015 and 2021, Ontario Power Generation only used about half the capacity of its hydroelectric stations, the auditor general found. Photo: Nic Redhead / Flickr The auditor general was also concerned “opportunities for developing Ontario’s future supply of hydroelectric power have not been fully explored” — an urgent issue as the province grapples with a projected energy supply shortage as nuclear plants are shut down for refurbishment or go offline entirely. Ontario Power Generation told the auditor general that building new hydroelectric stations in northern Ontario could take over 10 years. The Ford government has said it plans to increase the use of methane-intensive natural gas to make up for the shutdown of Pickering Nuclear Generating Station. In Wednesday’s report, the auditor general found the energy ministry has not yet developed a long-term plan that reconciles the province’s changing energy supply with emissions-reduction targets. The ministry told her this plan will be released in December 2023 Ontario Green Party leader Mike Schreiner said this report raises concerns about the reliability and cleanliness of Ontario’s grid as the province invests in the total electrification of transportation. “The government seems to be scrambling to overcome a supply shortage and they’re doing it in a way that will use gas plants that will increase climate pollution by three to four hundred per cent in our grid,” he said.  Ontario Minister of Natural Resources and Forestry Graydon Smith, centre, told reporters Wednesday that he’s open to talking to the Niagara Escarpment Commission about its funding issues. Photo: Government of Ontario / Flickr Unchecked invasive species are causing billions of damage in Ontario every year Invasive species — like zebra mussels that suffocate native mussels, and reeds called phragmites that out-compete local wetland species — cause $3.6 billion of damage in Ontario every year. But the province spends just $4 million annually to combat them, and that relatively small amount is often delivered irregularly, making it hard for organizations working on the problem to retain staff.  “Because that amount isn’t nearly enough, invasive species spread without much resistance, and Ontario’s farms, forest, and fisheries, as well as its health care, tourism and recreation sectors suffer substantial harm,” the press release said.  The result: of all the provinces and territories, Ontario is at the highest risk of new invasive species being introduced, Lysyk found. It already has the most invasive species, with at least 441 invasive plants and 191 non-native species in the Great Lakes, a major international shipping route.  The problem is so extensive that Ontarians can buy several invasive plant species at garden centres and plant nurseries.  Zebra mussels, an invasive species, can choke native mussel species. They’re widespread on the Great Lakes. Photo: D. Jude, University of Michigan, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory / Flickr Quagga mussels are another invasive species found on the Great Lakes. Invasive species cause $3.6 billion in damage in Ontario every year, the province’s auditor general found. Photo: National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory mussel watch program / Flickr “Though the people of Ontario understand the urgent need to act when a dangerous new threat emerges in the environment, the Ministry of Natural Resources acts far too slowly to take these threats seriously,” Lysyk said.  The ministry also lacks the staff it needs to enforce invasive species rules, according to the auditor general. Conservation officers aren’t properly trained to identify invasive species and rarely use their powers to crack down: in the last six years, conservation officers issued only 11 warnings and laid no charges for breaches of rules aimed at preventing the spread of invasive species. The stakes of this are high, Lysk said. Invasive species have already caused historic collapses of lake trout and late whitefish stocks on the Great Lakes — fish that feed both people and local economies.  In response, the Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry said it would review its plan for tackling invasive species but didn’t offer specifics.  Ontario’s failure to address invasive species is well documented — Lysyk criticized this in her report last year. She was even harsher Wednesday, saying in a press release that “Ontario is losing the fight against invasive species because it’s barely trying.”

Imperial Oil ‘repeatedly failed’ to tell landowners about contamination: Saskatchewan government

By Drew Anderson Contaminated sites can cause serious health risks and devalue property. Saskatchewan requires companies to notify those affected, but internal documents reveal instances where Imperial Oil flouted government rules

By Drew Anderson The Saskatchewan government has identified nearly 4,500 contaminated sites, spread out across the Saskatchewan landscape. Of those, at least 220 are contaminated from fertilizer operations formerly or currently operated by energy giant Imperial Oil. Newly obtained internal documents from the Saskatchewan government reveal the Calgary-based energy company has “repeatedly failed” to notify it, or affected landowners, of contamination on some of those sites. The information was shared in a November 2021 briefing note to then-environment minister Warren Kaeding and obtained by a Yorkton-area family fighting Imperial over land left contaminated by an adjacent fertilizer facility and shared with The Narwhal.  “The ministry has found evidence that Imperial has failed to properly report historical impacts at four separate sites,” the briefing note said. “At each site, Imperial knew of off-site impacts for many years, but did not disclose this information.” We’ve tripled our Prairies coverage The Narwhal’s Prairies bureau is here to bring you stories on energy and the environment you won’t find anywhere else. Stay tapped in by signing up for a weekly dose of our ad‑free, independent journalism. The Narwhal’s Prairies bureau is here to bring you stories on energy and the environment you won’t find anywhere else. Stay tapped in by signing up for a weekly dose of our ad‑free, independent journalism. We’ve tripled our Prairies coverage While the briefing note mentioned specific numbers when it comes to unreported contaminated sites, it also suggested the full extent of the problem was not fully known at the time. “Imperial has recently submitted basic status information on 220 of their sites to the ministry. This information did not disclose if known, or potential, off-site impacts exist at these sites,” it continued. “The ministry has yet to review this information, so there could be additional impacted sites that the ministry is not yet aware of.”  Land can be contaminated by everything from fertilizer plants to gas stations to oil wells and even dry-cleaners. They can pose serious health risks, make land sales or mortgages nearly impossible or cause problems on agricultural land. Without notification from the company, landowners would have no idea about the risks they face. The Government of Saskatchewan says there are close to 4,500 known contaminated sites across the province. Photo: Tim Smith / The Narwhal In response to questions from The Narwhal, the ministry confirmed there is contamination on all 220 of those sites, but said it could not provide information on how many of those sites impacted adjacent properties.  “The 220 sites include some where impacts were entirely within the property boundaries and others where there were off-site impacts,” a spokesperson for the ministry said by email.  “The ministry does not have the breakdown of the sites with and without off-site impacts readily available.”   The spokesperson did not say where those 220 sites were located or offer specifics, but did say, “given the nature of the operations,” contaminants may include “petroleum hydrocarbons, volatile organic carbons, fertilizers, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons and metals.” The ministry pointed to a map of all known contaminated sites in the province, but it does not provide any information about who owns the land. The map shows a total of 4,466 locations with confirmed contamination across the province, though the province’s website notes this is “not an exhaustive list.” ‘No beating around the bush’ about Imperial Oil’s failures: affected landowner One site known to be contaminated is located on the eastern edge of Yorkton, Sask. Connie and Ward Brown, who obtained the briefing note as part of a freedom of information request, discovered the land beneath their business was contaminated when they tried to secure financing from their bank in 2016 and were told they needed a land assessment due to the fertilizer plant on the western edge of their property.  Next door to their business, Imperial Oil had previously operated a cardlock fuel station and a bulk fertilizer facility — where different agricultural fertilizers are mixed and distributed. Since 2005, the fertilizer facility has been leased and operated by Nutrien, a Saskatchewan-based fertilizer company and the third-largest producer of nitrogen in the world.  When the report from their bank-ordered land assessment arrived, it showed significant groundwater contamination from fertilizers and the bank refused to provide any financing. As a result, the Browns shuttered their business and are still fighting Imperial in court to compensate them for their devalued land. They went through a round of mediation in July with all those tied up in the lawsuit, but Connie Brown says she’s not able to provide details.  Ward and Connie Brown have been forced to close their family-owned business selling snowmobiles, off-road vehicles and RVs as a result of contamination on a neighbouring Imperial Oil property. Photo: Tim Smith / The Narwhal In the process of fighting with Imperial, the Browns have become adept at filling freedom of information requests, the only way they’ve been able to get information on their property. Through those requests, they obtained the environmental site assessments that government documents say Imperial failed to hand over to the couple.  Nitrate and nitrite, the most significant contaminants from the Imperial-owned land, can have serious health impacts if ingested through drinking water, particularly for infants under six months old and pregnant women. Infants can suffer from a lack of oxygen in their blood if levels of nitrogen are elevated, leading to “blue baby syndrome” — which is fatal if untreated.  Connie Brown says she was surprised when they received a heavily redacted briefing note indicating their property was just one of hundreds in Saskatchewan. She was also surprised by how forceful it was compared to a previously obtained briefing note dated April 2021.  “The wording on this one, there was no beating around the bush, it says that they have repeatedly failed to notify — the ministry has found evidence,” she says. “It wasn’t just, you know, they might have forgotten to do something.” Imperial Oil, which owns the land next to the Browns, did not notify the family of the contamination stemming from its property. Photo: Tim Smith / The Narwhal Almost all of the briefing note is redacted, including three options presented to the minister to “tackle this issue,” the ultimate recommendation and answers to ministry-drafted questions — including “has Imperial responded to ministry’s warnings?” The softer-toned April briefing note said the ministry conducted an audit on all submissions related to the Brown’s file and said it showed Imperial knew contamination was spreading to nearby properties but failed to notify the ministry or adjacent landowners, including the Browns.  That also includes agricultural land to the north of the property owned by a company called Quance Park Developers, which proposed to build a new residential community on the land. When presented in 2014, the plan estimated 1,365 residents would eventually live there. Requests to speak with the company through its lawyer were not returned.  Government documents show the company met with ministry officials to discuss the contamination and indicate Imperial paid Quance Park to hire its own consultants to conduct a site assessment of its property. (The Browns were not offered similar reimbursements.) Saskatchewan contamination regulations require notification but no follow-up The ministry says it contacted Imperial Oil in 2020 to ask for an inventory of its contaminated sites, which included information on the 220 locations mentioned in the briefing note. In an email, a spokesperson said, “most of which were already in the ministry’s records through the regulated process.” It would not identify the locations of the four sites where notification was not given to “protect the privacy of potentially affected landowners.” “Imperial Oil has indicated that they have notified potentially affected landowners as required by the Saskatchewan Environmental Code,” a spokesperson wrote in an emailed response to questions. That represents a different tone than the briefing note raising concerns about the company’s conduct.  “Imperial Oil Ltd. has repeatedly failed to notify the ministry and affected landowners of discoveries of historical discharges at many of their fertilizer-handling facilities across Saskatchewan,” it reads.  The Saskatchewan government takes a hands-off approach when it comes to managing contaminated sites in the province and only recently launched a public database on the extent of the issue. Beyond basic information on known contaminants, location and status, specific details on individual sites — such as the extent of the contamination and cleanup plans — can only be obtained through freedom of information requests.  By Dec. 31, 2020, the government said on a contaminated sites page it had 2,712 contaminated sites in its registry. There are now 4,466 sites listed. A screenshot of a Government of Saskatchewan map showing all known contaminated sites across the province. The map shows limited information and excludes ownership of the properties or the extent of the contamination. Photo: Screenshot / Government of Saskatchewan In 2015, the province moved from what it calls a “command and control” system of regulating contamination, to a “results-based regulatory model.” Those responsible for contamination, or potential contamination, enter automatically into a process where the only requirement is to notify the Environment Ministry — as well as impacted landowners — of any potential concerns. Everything after that point, including monitoring and cleanup of the potential contamination, is not monitored. The ministry says it has issued one warning of non-compliance to Imperial for failure to notify landowners and said the company has complied with its obligations. The ministry also said it had “informed” Imperial Oil of the rules requiring a company to notify landowners affected by contamination. The Narwhal sent Imperial Oil a list of 10 questions related to the 220 sites in question, but the company did not respond to any of them. Instead, the company sent an emailed statement.  “Imperial follows a methodical, risk-based approach to reviewing former operating sites in its portfolio, with the objective of achieving regulatory closure,” Lisa Schmidt, a spokesperson for Imperial, wrote. “The company provides status updates regarding impacted sites to the Saskatchewan Ministry of the Environment, as required under applicable law. As part of this process, Imperial will ensure that notification is provided to third parties in accordance with the Saskatchewan environmental code.” Schmidt did not respond to follow-up questions regarding the contradiction between her statement and the minister’s briefing note. But she did say the company could not comment on the Brown property because the matter was before the courts. ‘They want to drag it on forever’ The Browns launched a lawsuit against Imperial in 2018, asking the company to buy their land for its value prior to the discovery of contamination, plus costs.  Imperial Oil, in a statement of defence filed in 2018, denies any responsibility for the contamination. It has now brought in Nutrien, the operator of the fertilizer facility since 2005, as a third party and alleges Nutrien should be held liable for any contamination or costs associated with it.  Nutrien has since filed a crossclaim, pointing the finger back at Imperial Oil and arguing its agreement to operate the fertilizer facility did not include an assumption of liability. It has also now brought in previous operators of the fertilizer facility, arguing they are liable for historical contamination.  Connie Brown and her husband Ward have filed numerous freedom of information requests in Saskatchewan in an attempt to get information about contamination on their land. Photo: Tim Smith / The Narwhal  Connie Brown says she’s growing frustrated. “We’re talking about moving to the next step,” she says. “I don’t want to be dead before this thing is settled. They want to drag it on forever, well, I’ve got stuff to do.”  That stuff could include helping others navigate a process that has occupied a significant amount of her time over the past six years. Now that she knows at least 220 properties spread across Saskatchewan are facing similar plights, she wonders if her experience can help other landowners push back. “There’s got to be a reason for going through all of this and learning all of this information,” she says. “I don’t know what I’ll do. But I’d like to do something with it, even if it’s getting involved in a research project or something.”

Suggested Viewing

Join us to forge
a sustainable future

Our team is always growing.
Become a partner, volunteer, sponsor, or intern today.
Let us know how you would like to get involved!


sign up for our mailing list to stay informed on the latest films and environmental headlines.

Subscribers receive a free day pass for streaming Cinema Verde.
Thank you! Your submission has been received!
Oops! Something went wrong while submitting the form.