What is environmental law?

Region: Ontario Answer # 366

Environmental laws are designed to protect the environment and prevent pollution by restricting certain activities and requiring government approvals for others. The laws cover a variety of issues, such as how to handle contaminated land, what to do about accidental spills, and who can be held legally responsible for environmental damage. There are penalties for violating environmental laws, such as compensation for those who have been injured, fines and imprisonment.

Environmental law is controlled by both the provincial and federal governments. In Ontario, the Ministry of the Environment, Conservation and Parks has the power to inspect and investigate environmental offences. The Ministry can order companies or individuals to clean up pollution or alternatively, the Ministry can require individuals or businesses to repay the money it spends to clean up or control the environmental damage. Municipalities also play a role in environmental issues through land use planning, and through their by-laws pertaining to things such as noise and nuisance, waste disposal, and sewers.

The most important environmental laws make it illegal to release contaminants into the environment. Contaminants can be solids, liquids, gases, noise, vibrations or radiation which harm the environment or affect peoples’ health. In most cases, it is necessary to have a licence to dispose of waste or to release substances into the air or water that could harm the environment.

The Ontario Government’s approach to environmental law is based on five principles:

  1. Preventing pollution is better than fixing pollution.
  2. Pollution that has already occurred should not be allowed to spread.
  3. Clean up action should take place as soon as possible.
  4. Where pollution does occur, the polluter must pay to clean it up.
  5. The original polluter and former property owners can be required to pay for clean ups, even if they no longer own the polluted land.

Additionally, the new owners of land may have a claim for compensation, if they have suffered due to things such as polluted water wells, gasoline emissions in the home, toxic substances buried on the property and so forth.


Environmental Protection Act

The Environmental Protection Act is the key legislation for environmental protection in Ontario.  It grants the Ministry of the Environment, Conservation and Parks broad powers to deal with the discharge of contaminants causing negative effects.

While the Act deals with commercial transactions involving contaminated land, it also:

  • prohibits the discharge of any contaminants into the environment which cause or are likely to cause negative effects, and requires that some approved contaminants must not exceed approved and regulated limits; and
  • requires that any spills of pollutants be reported and cleaned up in a timely fashion.

The Act also has the authority to establish liability on the party which is at fault, including corporate officers or directors who have failed to take all reasonable care to prevent unlawful discharges of contaminants into the environment.

If you need additional information about environmental law in Ontario, visit the Ministry of the Environment, Conservation and Parks.

For legal advice, contact an environmental law lawyer.




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