For several years, environmental approval applications have been piling up at Ontario’s Ministry of the Environment office faster than they could be processed. From the project proponents’ point of view, this meant a lengthy permitting process, with permits taking from six months to a year or more to be issued. This is particularly challenging for the waste sector, given the limited capacity remaining in most landfill sites and the urgent need for the development of more waste management facilities.
The ministry recognized that the approval timelines were frustrating for proponents seeking approvals, but point out that there were reasons for the delays. Many proponents provided the ministry only the bare minimum of information, and this was often not enough to answer regulators’ concerns. Differing formats of documentation submitted to support an application meant that staff needed to spend additional time hunting through each application for information. In too many cases, the ministry was obliged to return the application to the proponent for corrections, clarifications or additions of further technical detail, which had the effect of delaying the eventual decision.
The time to process an application is extremely dependant on the quality of the application that is being submitted. A poorly prepared application can easily add three to six months or more to the amount of time it takes to obtain an approval. Even for well-prepared, complete proposals, the process was slow in part due to those that needed extra time from ministry staff to deal with incomplete and poorly prepared application packages.
The ministry’s response has been to implement a number of initiatives to improve the application process. The key focus of the work that has been completed is to establish an expectation of documentation requirements for various application types, improve the overall quality of the applications being received and to reduce the length of time that it takes to obtain an approval.
Online resources provide guidance
The ministry is in the process of converting all of its application forms for air, waste and wastewater Certificates of Approval into electronic smart save-enabled PDF format. The application forms will identify the information required, based on the specific details of the application that is being submitted. The form will indicate the application status as being incomplete if an applicant does not fill out all required fields or identify that all supporting documentation is included. The expectation is that the new forms will compel applicants to ensure that that the submissions are complete prior to submission.
The ministry has also updated the “guide” to applying for Certificates of Approval to more clearly reflect what is required in an application, including checklists of required documentation and detailed guidance documents that outline the technical requirements of the application.
Another development has to do with the ministry’s need to have information in a consistent format. With support from Golder Associates, the ministry has developed a series of sample applications for a hypothetical project proponent. These “ACME” examples are available for several typical waste management operations, including an expansion of a municipal landfill, a new waste-transfer site and a new composting operation.
Members of the ministry have indicated that applications now being received are following the updated guidance materials and are using the electronic application form. The waste industry has been very supportive of the various initiatives of the ministry to clarify the environmental approval process, and to provide more flexibility to make changes to waste operations with a Comprehensive Certificate of Approval (the subject of a further article in the next edition of this magazine). The Environmental Assessment and Approval Branch was recently recognized by MWIN with the first ever Innovative Regulatory Reform Award for these initiatives.
Providing government the information it needs
Discussions with the ministry indicate several success factors in preparing applications that move through the process smoothly:
• Before preparing an application, study the guidelines and the ACME examples together; this will make it easier to put together a mental picture of what the ministry wants to see.
• Be realistic about how the planned facility will operate. Even if you think that odour will not be an issue, for example, indicate the steps you will take to deal with any such problems, such as utilizing odour suppressant systems. Consider other potential problem areas as well, such as blowing litter and noise.
• Demonstrate that you have planned for contingencies, such as a recycling operation having a “Plan B” if it comes a time that there is no viable market for the output, or the facility is not able to produce output to meet market requirements.
• Show that you have planned your operations ahead of time. For example, will the loading/unloading areas of the facility be large enough for the turning radius of the vehicles that will be using it?
It’s not just going through the motions
Some proponents seem to approach the environmental approvals process largely as a hurdle to jump.
The ministry wants to see not only that the required studies have been done and that the information has been presented correctly. It wants to be assured, through the approval application process, that unwanted effects of the proposed or altered facility will be managed effectively.
The ministry has had experience with complaints from environmental groups, neighbourhood groups, municipal politicians and others about waste management facilities that caused problems such as odour, litter, noise, surface and groundwater contamination. Some of these sites have had to be closed down.
Accordingly, the ministry wants to be assured through the environmental permitting process that project proponents have planned wisely so that the interests of stakeholders including neighbours have been met, and that environmental issues are being managed appropriately. A complete, technically sound application will not only assist the ministry in making the appropriate decision, it will help make the process more efficient for all applicants for waste management facilities.
The application packages are available at the ministry website at www.ene.gov.on.ca/en/business/cofa/sample.php
Pam Russell, P.Eng. (firstname.lastname@example.org), is a Senior Waste Engineer; Amy Burke, B.Sc. (Environmental Science), (email@example.com) is a Waste Management Specialist in the Whitby, Ontario office of Golder Associates Ltd. The authors wish to acknowledge assistance in the preparation of this article from Tim Edwards, Special Projects Engineer, Environmental Assessment and Approvals Branch, Ontario Ministry of the Environment.