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Ontario scraps controversial 'eco fees' in latest about-face by McGuinty

Premier McGuinty speaks to The Globe's editorial board on April 9, 2010

Fred Lum

Ontario's Liberal government has officially buried a controversial program that slapped "eco fees" on thousands of household products, marking its latest hasty policy retreat in the face of a consumer backlash.

Just last week, the government pulled the plug on plans to build a 900-megawatt gas-fired power plant in Oakville, west of Toronto, after residents complained that it would be too close to homes and schools. That policy reversal raised eyebrows because Premier Dalton McGuinty has made green energy the centrepiece of his economic policy.

Last year, Mr. McGuinty kick-started a battle for supremacy with British Columbia Premier Gordon Campbell in the burgeoning market for solar, wind and other power projects by vowing to make Ontario the go-to jurisdiction for green-energy investments. But in the countdown to next October's provincial election, he is displaying a new readiness after seven years in office to let politics, rather than policy, dictate his decisions, opposition critics say.

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"We are in an election year," Progressive Conservative MPP Peter Shurman told reporters. The government's announcement on Tuesday that it is permanently scrapping a program that imposed fees on aerosols, cleaning products and thousands of other potentially toxic items is just the latest example of a "turnaround or a flip flop ... in the face of what they see out there as a losing proposition."

Environment Minister John Wilkinson acknowledged on Tuesday that the government didn't get it right in its attempt to divert household hazardous waste from landfills.

"The program ... didn't make sense and the fees were inconsistent and confusing," he said at a news conference. "Instead, as we were told loudly and clearly by consumers, we need to make it simpler for them to do their part."

The government gave recycling agency Stewardship Ontario the go-ahead to begin collecting fees last July 1, ranging from a penny for a 59-millilitre bottle of hand sanitizer to $6.66 for a fire extinguisher. But it did not tell the public that the eco fees would be slapped on thousands of new items. The government stopped charging the fees three weeks later, after consumers and retailers complained that the program was mired in confusion, and launched a review that culminated in Tuesday's announcement that it is cancelled.

But critics say the government is giving companies that create the hazardous waste a free pass by not making them responsible for diverting toxic substances from landfills. Instead, the government is providing municipalities with $8-million in funding to help them dispose of fire extinguishers, rechargeable batteries, fluorescent light bulbs and other items unsuitable for recycling bins.

Homeowners will foot the bill through their property taxes because the funding, which averages $18,000 for each of the province's 440 municipalities, is not nearly enough to cover the cost of a waste diversion program, said New Democratic Party MPP Howard Hampton.

"Whoever produces the waste should pay for it," he told reporters. "But this is all being passed on to the ordinary taxpayer."

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Energy sector officials said the policy reversal on the Oakville power plant will have more far reaching consequences because it has led to uncertainty over the province's energy policies.

Mr. McGuinty has said he has no idea how much it will cost the government in penalties to kill the $1.2-billion Oakville plant. But energy officials said electricity consumers will ultimately be on the hook for the penalty. Other investors may seek a premium from the government for projects, because of the uncertain environment, they said.

"People are not sure what the government's energy policy really is," one executive said. "I think people are very, very concerned."

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About the Author

Karen Howlett is a national reporter based in Toronto. She returned to the newsroom in 2013 after covering Ontario politics at The Globe’s Queen’s Park bureau for seven years. Prior to that, she worked in the paper’s Vancouver bureau and in The Report on Business, where she covered a variety of beats, including financial services and securities regulation. More

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