The Pallister government is being accused of undermining environmental and ecological protections under the guise of eliminating red tape.
On Thursday, it introduced an omnibus bill in the Manitoba legislature affecting 15 statutes, ranging from environmental and drinking water safety legislation to laws governing labour relations, veterinary services and public-private partnerships.
The changes will make it more feasible financially for hog producers to build barns, and less onerous for public and semi-public drinking water suppliers to report on the condition of their infrastructure and water supplies.
There is also a provision to make it easier for the Public Utilities Board to review the costs to consumers for cashing a government cheque.
Finance Minister Cameron Friesen said the intent of Bill 24 (The Red Tape Reduction and Government Efficiency Act, 2017) is to ease the regulatory burden on business, industry, local governments and non-profit groups.
"We’re talking about approaches that address the real regulatory burden in Manitoba. It is excessive," he said, adding that the legislation would be reviewed annually.
However, some of the bill's provisions are raising red flags.
The proposed legislation would eliminate a general prohibition in law on the construction or expansion of hog manure storage facilities. A prohibition in The Environment Act on winter spreading of livestock manure would also be removed.
The government and the hog industry said, however, that prohibitions against spreading manure on fields in winter would continue to be in place through regulation. There would also continue to be controls over the location of hog barns and the amount of animal waste spread on the land at any one time, they said.
NDP MLA Andrew Swan said the changes regarding livestock waste and drinking water inspections are worrisome.
"The government has now introduced an omnibus bill that’s going to start weakening regulations that protect our drinking water, that protect our lakes and our rivers and that is going to weaken environmental regulation," he said. "It’s shocking that the government has decided, under the guise of cutting red tape, to put Manitobans at risk."
He expressed the concern that it will now be "full speed ahead" on the construction of hog barns in Manitoba.
Eric Reder, Manitoba campaign director for the Wilderness Committee, an environmental group, said he is worried that specific environmental protections are being removed from legislation and left to regulation, which can be quietly amended through a cabinet order.
"That’s weaker protection," he said, adding that once the bill is passed it will be more difficult to track rules governing manure spreading, for instance.
Reder said he is also concerned about a proposed amendment to the Ecological Reserves Act. The government is looking at ending a requirement to report on the status of these reserves every five years.
Reder noted that these reports are often late in being released. The reserves in question protect rare and unique species and landscapes.
"An ecological protection is the best protection we can put on land and waters in Manitoba," he said, adding there is "no reason" to eliminate status reports.
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Andrew Dickson, general manager of Manitoba Pork, a hog industry lobby group, said changes to The Environment Act are long overdue.
"They’re just cleaning up an act that should have been cleaned up years ago," he said of the Pallister government.
Restrictions on the volume and timing of manure spreading will continue, he said. But if the bill passes, government will have more flexibility to react to changing conditions and situations, he said.
The big win for hog producers, Dickson said, is that government would no longer require construction of expensive anaerobic digesters — huge tanks that break down hog manure before it is spread on the land.
Dickson said the environmental value of the technology imposed on the hog industry is questionable. The units were also so expensive — costing $1 million or more to install — that it prevented new-barn construction.
Larry Kusch Legislature Reporter
Larry Kusch didn’t know what he wanted to do with his life until he attended a high school newspaper editor’s workshop in Regina in the summer of 1969 and listened to a university student speak glowingly about the journalism program at Carleton University in Ottawa.
It would reduce the frequency in which public water suppliers are required to conduct an assessment on their infrastructure and water sources. Such assessments would be required every 10 years rather than every five years. Laboratories that conduct analyses of drinking water samples would be required to report immediately only in the case of "a serious and immediate health risk." A new provision would allow for "more effective regulation" of the shipping and receiving of water samples submitted to a lab.
The government would no longer be required to report on the status of the province's ecological reserves every five years.
Prohibitions on the construction or expansion of hog manure storage facilities would no longer be enshrined in The Environment Act. They would be covered by regulation. The same would apply to prohibitions against spreading manure on fields in winter.
Municipalities would no longer require ministerial approval to charge a property owner "more than a specified amount" for removing noxious weeds.
Community veterinary boards would no longer be required to undergo a formal audit of expenditures each year.
The minister responsible for the Consumer Protection Act would be able to order the Public Utilities Board to review the maximum charge permitted for cashing a government cheque. Currently, these reviews are done every three years.