Preventing Toxic Pollution: Toward a British Columbia Strategy

Andrews, William J.; Sandborn, Calvin; Wylynko, Brad

West Coast Environmental Law Research Foundation is a non-profit society that provides legal research and education to promote protection of the environment and public participation in environmental decision-making. This report was prepared for the British Columbia Hazardous Waste Management Corporation.

Toxic pollutants from a wide variety of large and small sources have contaminated -- and continue to contaminate -- the B.C. environment. The Province of British Columbia has taken various measures against this problem, but it lacks a comprehensive provincial strategy to prevent toxic pollution. This report outlines some of the major elements that should be included in such a strategy.


The strategy should be based on three fundamental principles:

  • the precautionary principle, that action should be taken to prevent contamination before there is conclusive proof of harm;
  • the preventative approach principle, that it is far better to prevent the generation of toxic pollutants than it is to try to cope with such pollutants after they have been created; and
  • the polluter pays principle, that those who pollute should pay for the ensuing costs and damages.

There are four pillars to the proposed pollution prevention strategy:

1.    Closing the gaps in the existing regulatory system (Chapter 2)

New legislation should mandate eliminating persistent toxic contaminants according to urgent and realistic timetables. It should establish a mechanism for prioritizing pollution problems. The use of certain substances should be banned. Enforceable regulations should set minimum standards, and site-specific pollution permits should add requirements that are more stringent. These standards should be updated periodically, e.g., every five years. Pollution prevention should be advocated by Ministry of Environment officials in land use planning and environmental assessment processes. The report recommends several ways in which enforcement should be strengthened. And it recommends new legislative and policy measures for cleaning up contaminated sites, keeping pollutants out of landfills and sewers, and reducing or eliminating pollution from nonpoint sources.

2.    Providing education and technology transfer (Chapter 3)

Many businesses would actually save money by reducing their pollution discharges. Yet, lack of information about pollution prevention techniques prevents many businesses from cleaning up their operations. The government should establish a British Columbia Pollution Prevention Centre to provide information and technical assistance to industry. The government should fund pollution prevention research and demonstration projects. It should also require that generators of toxic materials prepare comprehensive toxics use reduction plans.

3.    Implementing a system of economic incentives and disincentives (Chapter 4)

The marketplace could be a powerful mechanism for preventing pollution. The report outlines a variety of economic instruments that the government should implement to induce both polluters and consumers to replace polluting practices with practices that prevent pollution, beyond the levels required mandatorily by the regulatory system. Such instruments should include emission charges on industrial emissions, and environmentally-based product taxes. Deposit/refund systems should be established to ensure the return of products containing toxics, as part of a general requirement that businesses take direct responsibility for ultimate disposal of such products. The civil liability of polluters to pay for environmental damage should be expanded, and polluters should be required to post adequate insurance or security to pay for potential pollution damage. Government purchasing policies and subsidy policies should be restructured to encourage clean industry.

4.    Enhancing public participation and revamping the Province's information system (Chapter 5)

Citizen participation is the key to a successful strategy for preventing toxic pollution. The report calls for new legislation to recognize public rights to participate in pollution-prevention decision-making, and to have access to information held by government. Dissemination of environmental information should also be required in certain circumstances. These reforms are closely linked to the need to modernize the Province's system of handling information on environmental standards, compliance and environmental impact, so that all concerned can have efficient access to timely information.

Conclusion (Chapter 6)

In conclusion, the provincial government needs to consult widely with affected parties and the public, in order to formulate a comprehensive strategy to prevent toxic pollution. The principles, purposes and structures of the strategy should be enshrined in legislation.

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