Wind case challenges government on precautionary principle

To what extent does the government have to follow the precautionary principle when it enacts environmental legislation? That’s a key issue at the heart of the challenge to Ontario’s rules on wind turbines that’s set for a hearing before the Divisional Court today.

The matter, Hanna v. Attorney General for Ontario, seeks to declare four regulations under the Environmental Protection Act dealing with  invalid. They allow facilities to come within 550 metres of the nearest home.Wind turbine

Ian Hanna, a property owner from Prince Edward County, Ont., argues the rules don’t comply with s. 11 of the Environmental Bill of Rights, which requires the minister of the environment to “take every reasonable step to ensure that the ministry statement of environmental values is considered whenever decisions that might significantly affect the environment are made in the ministry.” That statement of environmental values notes 10 principles, including that the ministry “uses a precautionary, science-based approach in its decision-making to protect human health and the environment.”

Lawyers have noted that any ruling in Hanna’s favour could have a detrimental impact on wind projects in the works across the province. Much of the arguments against them have focused on claims that, despite initial studies to the contrary showing minimal adverse effects from turbines, they do in fact cause chronic problems such as sleeplessness and stress that can lead to more serious illnesses. The government, meanwhile, counters that it took medical studies into account in enacting the rules and made its decisions based on scientific evidence and a cautious approach.

Representing Hanna is lawyer Eric Gillespie. Dr. Robert McMurtry, former dean of the University of Western Ontario’s medical school and brother of former Ontario chief justice Roy McMurtry, has also gotten involved as an expert on Hanna’s behalf.

Environmentalists have long considered the precautionary principle to be key to advancing their cause. It essentially invokes a burden of proof requiring those proposing an action or policy to show that it won’t harm the environment.

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