By Mike Anderson

Georgina Council is calling on the province not to fast-track the Bradford Bypass by exempting it from key environmental legislation.

The proposed 16 km four-lane highway would cross the Holland River and environmentally sensitive sections of the Holland Marsh, linking the 400 and 404 highways. 

Local environmental groups claim it will destroy sensitive wildlife habitats and remove high-quality woodlands. They also claim run-off from the highway — particularly sodium chloride (road salt) — will negatively impact groundwater and surface water in the Lake Simcoe watershed. 

On August 11, council unanimously endorsed a resolution from Ward 3 Councillor Dave Neeson that requests the province complete all the required studies and assessments under the project’s original environmental assessment (EA), which was approved on August 28, 2002. 

The resolution also requests that the Ministry of Transportation (MTO) complete its Transportation Environmental Study Report (TESR), which includes potential environmental impacts and mitigation measures. 

It also calls on the province to commit to publicly releasing all environmental assessments and studies. 

Still, the resolution reiterated the Town’s support for the Bradford Bypass. It also stopped short of calling on the province to complete a new EA, which local environmental groups have been demanding. 

The resolution, in part, is a response to an announcement by the Ministry of the Environment, Conservation and Parks (MECP) that it is considering introducing new regulations that could exempt MTO from complying with requirements outlined in the Environmental Assessment Act (EAA). 

According to MECP, the exemption is part of the government’s commitment to modernize the 50-year old EA program by removing duplication. 

“The purpose of the exemption would be to eliminate duplication in work already completed by MTO through the environmental assessment process undertaken in 2002, which imposed 15 conditions. In addition, the exemption may save MTO up to a year of additional work that is duplicative of previous work completed,” the MECP states on the Environmental Registry of Ontario website. 

MECP says the Bradford Bypass is “currently subject to other requirements that ensure environmental protection.”

“Exempting these select projects allows MTO to maintain and implement critical roadway infrastructure in Ontario,” the website states. “It also allows the province to focus its resources on more significant, complex infrastructure projects with the highest potential for environmental impacts.” 

Claire Malcolmson, Executive Director of the Rescue Lake Simcoe Coalition, doesn’t buy MECP’s argument and supports Georgina Council’s resolution, particularly the call to remove the exemption. 

“I see it as a win because one of the things they picked up on, and the resolution makes this quite clear, is that the government has proposed a regulation on the Environmental Registry of Ontario (ERO) that’s been sitting there for a year and would exempt the project’s EA from a whole bunch of stuff. And, that’s very problematic,” she said. 

“It is our lawyer’s opinion that actually they would not be compelled to release information publicly or do public consultation.” 

“The Town of Georgina with this resolution highlighted how problematic and how confusing the exemption is. And they made clear that they want the province to get rid of that exemption.”

Malcolmson believes that once the exemption is removed, there will be greater transparency because the public will see what was studied and what mitigation actions were proposed. 

“We could then push harder for actual mitigation, which to this point has not been promised. They’ve just said they would look at mitigation. They haven’t said they would actually mitigate,” she said. 

Malcolmson has been making the rounds to various councils, including Georgina, Barrie, and Brock, asking them to pass resolutions that call for better environmental oversight for the project. She’s hopeful that the province will listen to them because it hasn’t been listening to groups, like the Rescue Lake Simcoe Coalition. 

“The provincial government is not engaging with us at all on this. They write letters that reiterate what we already know, and they don’t answer the question about what the process would look like without this exemption. So we’re going to the municipalities that are more responsive.”

“These projects are supposed to have municipal support. We’re just trying to make sure that municipalities are aware because this is a complicated issue, and MTO, which you would normally rely upon to give you honest information, seems to be so confused themselves, they can’t give straight answers.” 

“It’s like the province is just rewriting laws to advance projects like this.”