Ministry of the Environment: Part 2

Ministry of the Environment: Part 2

By David Balsillie, James Bishop, Peter Dennis
When the Ontario Ministry of the Environment (MOE) was created in 1972, questions soon emerged. The public wanted action, but what would the staff at this new ministry actually do about the environment, and how should it be done? (Pictured above are Gord Miller, David Balsillie, James Bishop, and Peter Dennis.)

When the Ontario Ministry of the Environment (MOE) was created in 1972, questions soon emerged. The public wanted action, but what would the staff at this new ministry actually do about the environment, and how should it be done? It was a reasonable question. Creating the new government ministry was the result of public opinion, political will and good intentions. But it takes expertise and action to put these good intentions into practice and make a difference. After the first Earth Day in 1970, a consensus emerged in public opinion, in Ontario as well as other provinces and countries, that protecting the environment was a full-time job. It seemed to most people, and to the governments they elected, that the best way to make sure the work would get done was to have one full-time government ministry or agency in charge. In Ontario, it fell to a special group of experts to actually do the work of protecting the environment — senior government officials with scientific expertise. David Balsillie, Peter Dennis and James Bishop were three of those pioneering senior environment officials who worked for Ontario. Their backgrounds were in water resources and energy management. Before MOE was created, a provincial agency called Ontario Water Resources Commission (now part of the MOE) was responsible for managing all aspects of water , while energy fell under other ministries such as the Ministry of Natural Resources, with most energy management and planning done by Ontario Hydro.

Managing Ontario’s environment

It quickly became clear that while water and energy were part of the mix, managing Ontario’s environment was a bigger job. There were other issues such as waste management, land use and air pollution — and how all these issues interacted with one another became an important part of the senior Ministry officials’ work. One of the first tasks in the new Ministry was to develop an organizational structure — determining who would be responsible for what. It took until 1974, two years after the Ministry was formed, to set up and assign responsibilities to regional Environment Ministry offices across the province. The Ministry officials and staff also worked hard to establish a database to help record the state of the environment — measurements of air and water quality, soil composition and so on. It’s important to know the situation you’re starting with if you want to know how to improve it. They studied fish, comparing samples collected from Ontario waterways to fish provided by museums and from aquariums to see what kinds of pollutants were affecting the province’s aquatic life. The difficulty is that the natural samples don’t always compare exactly with museum or aquarium samples, because there are so many variables in the natural conditions. Over the years, thanks to advances in technology, the ability to measure and catalogue samples has become much more accurate. Ministry officials also responded to complaints about discharges from industries into the water, and studied chemicals found in water samples, learning more each year about new environmental challenges that need to be met. Collecting the data was just a start — it also had to be organized, interpreted and explained. It took Ministry staff about three years, for example, to come up with a comprehensive guidebook for regional staff to use to determine how to manage water quality. It was important to get it right. It seems simple today to know what categories to put into such a guide, but in the 1970s environmental scientists were heading into new territory as they developed the goals, policies, objectives and implementation procedures for water policy — the roadmap to a cleaner Ontario.

Laying the groundwork

As the Ministry worked away, of course the environment itself did not sit still. There were new spills and accidents, newly understood pollution threats and new ways to measure, manage, regulate and reduce environmental threats. In the 1970s, the Ministry had to address issues ranging from mercury poisoning in Northern Ontario waterways caused by pulp mills to acid rain to forestry and waste management. At the beginning of the decade 70s scientists could detect toxic chemicals in water and air in parts per million. It sounds like a minute, precise measurement, but it was later surpassed by far more accurate ones. By the 1990s technology advanced so that they could see parts per quadrillion — and they could detect a veritable toxic soup of chemicals, many of them carcinogenic. The Ministry forged on —Ontario developed and deployed some of the most advanced environmental technologies for example, in water testing and analysis. In 1985, officials established the scientific base that enabled Ontario to bring in Countdown Acid Rain, one of the toughest acid rain control regulations in the world. In 1985, MOE hosted the world’s first international scientific conference on dioxin, a cancer-linked byproduct of incineration. Ontario hosted it again in 1998. The Ministry’s deep background work laid the groundwork for programs like Ontario’s Blue Box programs and the Municipal Industrial Abatement Strategy (MISA), which measures and deals with 322 parameters for what kinds of substances are in 1,200 municipal water supplies. Later programs in the early 21st century included tougher air regulations, addressing climate change and a comprehensive management plan for Lake Simcoe. Other challenges, such as cleaning up toxic “hot spots” at various points on the Great Lakes, remain daunting for the Ministry and for Ontario. MOE’s first generation scientists are still excited about their work — both the early work they did to establish the Ministry and to get it moving, and the current work being done every day to protect Ontario’s environment, in water pollution research and abatement, air quality improvement, waste management and control of toxic substances.
Share This

Short Teasers

Related stories

Environmental Journalists
Environmental Historians Talk About Ontario’s Environmental History
MOE Investigation and Enforcement Branch
Great Lakes United
The First Environmental Lawyers in Private Practice