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ONTARIO: Government asks public to report pollution online through website

Environment Minister Jeff Yurek said the site will help improve public reporting of pollution as well as ministry response times

TORONTO — The Ontario government is asking the public to report suspected pollution online in an effort to bolster enforcement, but critics say the move is a token gesture by a regime that has done little to help the environment.

The new website, announced Wednesday, allows users to upload photos, videos and audio clips to help staff assess the situation. 

Users can report any incidents of pollution they come across, including oil or chemical spills, industrial or commercial noise pollution, or improper disposal of commercial waste, the province said. They also have the option to create a secure login to receive updates on how the report is being handled.

The new online tool was one of the initiatives promised in the governing Progressive Conservatives' environmental plan announced in 2018.

Environment Minister Jeff Yurek said the site will help improve public reporting of pollution as well as ministry response times.

"Our government takes environmental violations very seriously and has zero tolerance for illegal polluters -- and we know the people of Ontario are eager to do their part to protect our environment," he said in a statement.

"With your help, we can hold polluters accountable and ensure compliance with the environmental laws we have in place to protect our air, land and water for generations to come." 

Some environmental advocates suggested the new tool will have limited usefulness, and suggested the province is tasking the public with flagging issues rather than proactively enforcing environmental rules.

"I think this government has demonstrated through its actions that they don't really care about the environment," said Keith Brooks, programs director with Environmental Defence. 

"So this tip line looks like a bit of a smokescreen, perhaps -- it's a small move that is meant to distract or deflect from criticism that they might receive on the environmental file more broadly."

Opposition legislators echoed that sentiment.

"Given the government's track record, bringing in measures that increased pollution, I don't have a lot of confidence in the government's effort," said Green party Leader Mike Schreiner.

"Obviously being able to monitor pollution is very important, and we need to have that scientific data, but once you have it, you have to act on it, and this particular government is headed in the wrong direction."

Liberal house leader John Fraser said the new tool aims to address the optics around the issue, rather than the problem itself.

"The appearance of doing something is critical to this government, and it's not any different in the environment," he said.

The online tool is meant for non-urgent environmental issues, and the site says urgent ones should be reported by phone through the province's 24-hour hotline.

Those who are the owners of pollutants involved in a spill are also legally required to report the incident by phone to the Spills Action Centre.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 19, 2021.

Paola Loriggio, The Canadian Press