As she prepares to close her office, Ontario Environmental Commissioner Dianne Saxe says Sarnians have good reasons to be suspicious of the Ford government.
“Why silence the watchdog unless you’re planning to do something you don’t want the watchdog to see?” asked Saxe, whose final day is May 1.
“The reduction in expert, non-partisan environmental oversight concerns many Ontarians, as it should.”
The Conservative government announced in November it was shutting the commissioner’s office and transferring her duties to the auditor general, calling the decision as a cost-cutting measure.
Sarnia and its heavy industry has been a frequent focus of commissioners over the past 25 years. In her 2017 report, Saxe accused the province of turning a blind eye to pollution impacting the Aamjiwnaang First Nation and other Indigenous communities.
Saxe told The Journal her office was instrumental in the Environment Ministry bringing in tougher sulphur dioxide regulations for petroleum facilities.
The new rules, which began a multi-year phase-in on Jan. 1, requires local plants to improve how stack flaring is managed through reporting, monitoring and penalties.
Sarnia-Lambton MPP Bob Bailey dismissed the notion that eliminating the commissioner’s officer will be bad for the environment.
“They’re not being dismantled, they’ll be moved into the office of the auditor general,” he said.
“They have, and will continue to have, independent oversight from the government.”
Bailey said Sarnia’s environmental concerns are a priority with the Doug Ford Government. At Bailey’s request, Environment Minister Rod Phillips made his first visit to the city, where he met with representatives from Aamjiwnaang, the Sarnia Lambton Environmental Association and industry leaders, he said.
And the government has pledged to fund part of a long-awaited local health study, he added.
“We know there’s concerns here. We know that we all have to live, work and play here,”
Until now, Ontario’s environmental commissioner has not reported to any ministry, but to the Legislature itself. Leaving the government in charge of investigating itself is a problem, said Saxe, who learned about her departure through news reports.
“We still haven’t received the letter or anything, saying we’re eliminating your position. And certainly not given any kind of reason.”