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Specific laws provide a general framework for accessing information. At the federal level, there is the Access to Information Act. Most provinces have an equivalent law. For example, the Quebec Act Respecting Access to Documents held by Public Bodies and the Protection of Personal Information. This act has created an independent institution called the Access to Information Commission, to deal with complaints brought by citizens. Moreover, in many provinces, citizens complaining about unfair treatment by government agencies or officials can consult the provincial office of the Ombudsman. The Ombudsman is an independent and impartial investigator whom a person can consult without having to go through the expense and process of a judicial review. In April 1995, Canada created the position of Commissioner of the Environment and Sustainable Development. This office reports directly to the Auditor General of Canada. The Commissioner is authorized to forward public petitions on environmental matters to the responsible Ministers who must then reply to them.
Some environmental laws and regulations deal directly with the right of access to environmental information. For example, the Canadian Environmental Protection Act, 1999 (CEPA 1999) creates an environmental registry that facilitates access to documents related to issues covered by the Act. At the provincial level, most legislations dealing with environmental matters contain provisions for public access to information. For example, the Ontario Environmental Bill of Rights makes information and opportunities for consultation readily available to the public. The New Brunswick Clean Air Act establishes the requirement to maintain a register containing a range of information related to the implementation of the legislation. The public register facilitates the various public consultation processes that are mandated by the Act. The register may contain information such as: applications for registrations, permits and approvals; approvals and conditions relating to them; administrative penalties paid and convictions under the Act; orders made by the Minister and agreements entered into by the Minister.
CEPA 1999 also requires the Minister of the Environment to periodically publish data-from its monitoring network, from research and studies, and from other useful sources-on the state of the Canadian environment. Several provinces, such as Manitoba, Saskatchewan, and British Columbia, also publish state of the environment reports. Environment Canada offers a host of Canadian environmental data on the Internet. The site provides information such as weather forecasts, scientific reports, politics and legislation updates, environmental priorities, etc. The provincial departments of the environment and the three territories also have Internet sites: Alberta, British Columbia, Manitoba, New Brunswick, Newfoundland and Labrador, Nova Scotia, Ontario, Prince Edward Island, Quebec, Saskatchewan, the Northwest Territories, Nunavut, and the Yukon. Some sites are very detailed and give an extensive description of the initiatives, organizational structure, legislations, policies, activities of the Department, etc. Others are more modest and only outline their organization and general policies.
There is a variety of ways in which businesses in Canada are required to report information relating to their environmental performance.
First, any spill or unusual pollution incident must be reported to government authorities. This is required by both federal and provincial legislation and regulations applicable to particular industries or types of environmental harm.
Second, businesses that discharge pollutants to air, land or water pursuant to permits, licences or regulations are usually required to report to government regularly on the amount and characteristics of the discharges that have actually occurred. Typically, the business itself conducts the testing and measurements, but there are penalties for false reporting.
Third, many businesses that are authorised to discharge pollutants are required to collect, and submit to the government, information on ambient environmental conditions in the vicinity of the business. The purpose of information of this type is to help determine whether and how the discharge of pollutants from the business in question -- and from other sources -- is actually affecting the environment.
Fourth, particular high-risk activities are subject to special reporting requirements. For example, any firm transporting dangerous goods must use a sophisticated document system that tracks each shipment from origin to destination. And, any business importing or manufacturing a chemical substance that is new to Canada must provide toxicological testing data to the federal government, as required by CEPA 1999.
Fifth, some companies are required, by law, to participate in a special data gathering program, such as the National Pollutant Release Inventory (NPRI), developed by Environment Canada. The NPRI contains information collected from businesses on emissions of certain pollutants into the environment. For example, it details underground discharges from air or water installations, transfers of waste from the site, transfers of material for recuperation, reuse or recycling, and energy recuperation. An important goal of NPRI is to provide the public with the opportunity to get information about discharges of pollutants by installations in their locality. Moreover, NPRI supports some environmental initiatives by providing information that governments or other organisations can use to identify priorities, to encourage businesses to take voluntary measures to reduce discharges, to evaluate progress made in terms of reductions, and to indicate where in Canada more regulation is required.