Tay tribunal washed away
The Ottawa Citizen
Tuesday, February 18, 2003

It's possible that provincial Environment Minister Chris Stockwell made the right decision when he decided to allow a Perth company to draw up to 4.5 million litres of water a day from the Tay River. But it shouldn't have been Mr. Stockwell making the decision.

Late Friday, when news organizations normally have difficulty getting political reaction before their weekend deadlines, Mr. Stockwell made public his decision to overturn a ruling by an Environmental Review Tribunal. The tribunal official who heard the case, Pauline Browes, had spent six weeks listening to experts and Lanark County residents give their views on the water-taking proposal by OMYA Canada. After weighing the data, she limited the amount of water the company could take each day for its calcium carbonite plant. Mr. Stockwell has now reversed that: He says OMYA can take up to 4.5 million litres daily, beginning next year.

True, the minister did have additional information on the water-taking issue: an environmental assessment screening report from the federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans that found the Tay River will go down by a maximum of three-quarters of an inch, in the worst-case scenario, not enough lost water for the fish to miss it. So Mr. Stockwell appears to be basing his decision on science.

But who will believe him? Chris Stockwell is a smart, partisan politician from Etobicoke, not a scientist. Even if he is basing this decision on errors of logic in the tribunal process or new scientific opinions, the people of Eastern Ontario are bound to think that the politicians have overturned the tribunal's decision based on intense political pressure from the company.

A better end to this issue would have seen the tribunal hold additional hearings in Perth to consider the new evidence. The minister could even ask the tribunal to consider new evidence, if he was convinced that fairness required it.

But having cabinet overturn decisions of the Environmental Review Tribunal erodes its independence and the credibility of the government. If the government is determined that the water-taking is benign, and that it's important to allow it for a good job-creating business such as OMYA, it would be better off simply making that decision in the first place and defending it with the facts -- after which it would have to be accountable to the voters. But the government shouldn't lead the company, and its environmental critics, on a drawn-out public hearing process if the end decision isn't going to be respected.

The Ontario government has made a habit of overruling the decisions of local people in Eastern Ontario over the last several years, on everything from health care to schools. Here, it's reversing the decision of an independent arbiter who was sent by the government to find the facts firsthand. It's a poor way to establish facts -- or build respect for government.