"Malaise" is not a word you'd expect to find on the Liberals' environmental report card, given the McGuinty government's laudable efforts on green energy.
But Environmental Commissioner Gord Miller in his annual report released last week suggests the province has lost momentum on the file to the point that a Walkerton-like crisis is inevitable. Here's a detailed snapshot of Miller's findings.
The not so Great Lakes
Seventy per cent of Ontarians rely on the Great Lakes for drinking water. Efforts to clean up the planet's largest source of fresh water date back to the early 70s, when the two key pacts with the U.S. focused largely on fixing trouble spots contaminated by pollution.
A major problem: the 580,000 tonnes of nitrogen and phosphorous that find their way into the Great Lakes annually.
Chronic underfunding, a recurring theme in Miller's report, has been a key weakness of cleanup efforts. So far, only three of 17 areas of concern have been restored. Cleaning up the remaining sites will cost an estimated $3.5 billion.
The Obama administration has put $8 billion on the table for Great Lakes remediation, but the province has yet to respond in kind.
Far North fix
Ontario announced protection of some 40 per cent of land in the top third of the province, which is home to more than 200 sensitive species, huge swaths of boreal forest and a carbon-absorbing sink of global significance.
But the area is also part of the Open Ontario Plan aimed at strengthening the economy. The government is stressing that local land use planning must include aboriginal communities in development decisions. But pressure for resource development may be outweighing the government's stated "environmental, social and economic objectives." Proof of that: the number of mining claims in the region has more than tripled to some 90,000 since 2007.
Hydroelectric development in the region (approximately 60 per cent of Ontario's untapped hydroelectric potential) also looms large as an eco threat.
The Far North Act contains specific prohibitions of natural gas, mining and timber activities in protected areas, but there's a loophole - they can be overridden by an order of Cabinet.
Endangered Species Act
The province's efforts to preserve species at risk - the environmental commissioner identified 13 as threatened in his last annual report - has bordered on negligence. Miller calls Ontario's recovery efforts under the Endangered Species Act "vague, weak and arguably redundant."
On-the-ground conservation efforts, he notes, have been off-loaded to volunteer groups. Legal hunting and trapping of two species at risk, snapping turtles and eastern wolves, are still allowed.
The environmental commissioner also notes the alleged destruction of eastern cougar habitat near Timmins and the absence of measures to protect habitat of the woodland caribou, both of which have been targets of investigations by Miller's office.
Also missing in action: oversight of fish farming operations in Lake Huron and Georgian Bay.
Waste diversion aversion
While residential waste diversion rates have increased in the last decade, diversion rates in the industrial, commercial and institutional sectors (IC&I) have actually decreased. The result is that Ontario's overall diversion rate is stuck at 23 per cent, about the same as a decade ago and well below the 60 per cent target that should have been achieved by 2008. The IC&I sectors create 60 per cent of Ontario's garbage, but only 13 per cent of that is diverted from landfill.
A "crisis of capacity"
Funding for the Ministries of the Environment and of Natural Resources has actually decreased even as issues of the environment and files managed by both have grown in number and complexity. Neither ministry has fully recovered from cuts the Harris government made in the 1990s.
In fact, in real dollars, MNR's and MOE's budgets have declined by 22 and 45 per cent respectively since 1992. A measly three-quarters of 1 cent of every $1 of the total provincial budget is allocated to these two ministries.
Cold water on conservation
Ontarians are the biggest users of water on the planet, consuming 270 litres per day, roughly twice as much as the average person in Europe. Excessive consumption carries economic costs for the large amounts of energy to treat, distribute, heat and pump all that H2O. Heating water accounts for 20 per cent of an average household's energy consumption.
But targets to encourage municipalities to improve the sustainability of water, wastewater and stormwater usage under the province's Water Opportunities And Water Conservation Act are merely "aspirational," which means there's no requirement to actually achieve them.
What the fracking?
Shale gas exploration, which involves the extraction of natural gas from rock using water, sand and chemicals in a method called hydraulic fracking, or hydrofracking, is in its infancy in Ontario.
But a three-year study by the Ministry of Northern Development and Mines uncovered areas of potential development in almost all of southwestern Ontario west of London and a section of southeastern Ontario. One exploratory well has been drilled in Chatham.
While its full potential has yet to be determined, natural gas currently accounts for about 30 per cent of Ontario's energy.
The harmful effects of fracking on the environment, however, are well known from experience in the U.S. These include huge stresses on water supply (approximately 11 million litres of water are required for each drilling site) as well as water contamination and chemical exposure.