Guide to understanding the Canadian Environmental Protection Act: chapter 12

12. Environmental emergencies

12.1 What is an environmental emergency?

An environmental emergency, as defined in the Canadian Environmental Protection Act, 1999 (CEPA 1999), is an uncontrolled, unplanned or accidental release of a substance (listed in regulations made under Part 8) into the environment or the reasonable likelihood of such a release that may affect the environment or human health. There are an estimated 20 000 environmental emergencies annually in Canada. The majority of the releases are minor and have minimal adverse impact on the environment. About 9000 emergencies get reported to Environment Canada in any given year and about 1000 of these require some form of involvement or action by Environment Canada. These incidents are primarily the result of accidents, improper maintenance or human error.

12.2 How is CEPA 1999 used to manage environmental emergencies?

When it comes to environmental emergencies, no one organization can do it all. Effective emergency response requires teamwork between governments, industry, communities and local organizations. CEPA 1999's environmental emergency provisions provide a "safety net" for the comprehensive management of environmental emergencies. Where no other federal or provincial regulations exist that adequately respond to environmental emergencies, CEPA 1999 can be used to fill these gaps to protect the environment and human health.

CEPA 1999 authorizes the government to make regulations and take non-regulatory measures to prevent, prepare for, respond to and recover from environmental emergencies. The preparation of environmental emergency plans can be required for substances that have been assessed to be toxic under CEPA 1999 and are on the List of Toxic Substances or are recommended for addition to that List. The Government also has the authority to make regulations to require that environmental emergency plans be developed for any substances prescribed in the regulations. These need not be limited to those assessed as toxic under CEPA 1999, they can be substances that are or may be hazardous to the environment or human health in an environmental emergency. Environmental Emergency Regulations, listing over 170 substances and requiring the preparation and implementation of environmental emergency plans for those substances, were made under CEPA 1999 in 2003.

These provisions of the act also establish a regime that makes the person who owns or controls the substance liable for restoring the damaged environment and the costs and expenses incurred in responding to an environmental emergency.

The Minister has the authority to conduct research, conduct and publicize demonstration projects and issue guidelines and codes of practice respecting environmental emergencies. Research could include studies and public demonstrations on the causes of environmental emergencies and remedial measures for dealing with them. The Minister may also establish a national system for the notification and reporting of environmental emergencies.

Under the enforcement provisions, the court can require anyone who has been convicted of a violation under CEPA 1999 to prepare and implement an environmental emergency plan.

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