Since the COVID 19 outbreak was declared a health emergency by the Quebec government on March 13, many measures have been taken, some of which have an impact on businesses’ environmental obligations. Here is an overview of these measures and the flexibility they bring.
Essential services and commercial activities – environment and residual materials
Workplace activities have been suspended since March 25, with the exception of essential services and the minimal operations needed to ensure that businesses providing non-essential services, excluding stores, will be able to resume their activities.
Essential services include government services provided by the Quebec government’s ministries and agencies, such as the Ministry of the Environment and the Fight Against Climate Change (MELCC); enterprises involved in environmental emergencies; waste collection and residual materials management; maintenance and operation of strategic infrastructures (which includes the production, supply, transmission and distribution of power) and sanitation services such as water treatment plants; as well as construction firms, for emergency repairs or to ensure safety. The suspension of workplace activities does not, however, prevent remote work or e-commerce.
In terms of residual materials management, the following services are deemed essential: garbage collection and disposal services; recyclable materials collection and sorting services; hazardous materials collection and treatment services; organic materials collection and treatment services, including emptying septic tanks; biomedical waste collection and treatment services; and pest control businesses (for bedbugs, rats and mice in particular).4 All businesses that produce inputs or raw materials necessary for these essential services and activities must maintain their activities accordingly.
A Q&A document for sorting centres and municipal bodies was prepared by the Quebec government and is available online.6 If sorting activities are reduced or suspended, it is recommended that unsorted materials be stored in a covered area. Materials should only be sent for elimination as a last resort, although no authorization is required to do so. Note, however, that the costs associated with eliminating residual materials, including disposal charges, remain in place. If a centre expects to store more materials than the maximum quantity provided for in the authorization issued to it under the Environment Quality Act,7 it should first address the appropriate regional branch of the MELCC.
Exemption from obtaining an environmental authorization
The MELCC relied on section 31.0.12 of the Environment Quality Act to exempt those businesses that change their activities so as to provide products essential to the fight against COVID 19 from the obligation of obtaining a ministerial authorization under the act.8 This exemption covers two specific situations: a production increase and a temporary change of usual activities for the purposes of providing a new product.
Businesses can obtain an exemption by sending a notice to the MELCC containing the requisite information. The exemption will come into force upon receipt of the MELCC’s confirmation, which should be sent within 48 hours after the necessary information is sent.
The exemption will only be valid during the health emergency. Consequently, once the health emergency is lifted, the activities covered by the exemption must cease as soon as possible. The other provisions of the Environment Quality Act will remain in force, including those governing the release of contaminants into the environment.
Environmental audits performed by the MELCC
During the health emergency, the MELCC announced the services provided by the Centre de contrôle environnemental du Québec (Quebec’s environmental audit center, or CCEQ) were adjusted to be consistent with the social distancing measures and to address the challenges its clients are facing during this period.
Field inspections will therefore be limited and conducted only where there is a significant risk to the quality of the environment or the health and safety of individuals. Inspections associated with essential services (Urgence-Environnement, handling environmental complaints and monitoring drinking water) will be maintained.
The CCEQ will be lenient with clients that have environmental obligations and whose activities are affected by the measures implemented by the government. This leniency might be extended to certain administrative obligations (filing of reports or balance sheets, for instance), but not to cases of environmental damage. If you believe you will be unable to comply with some of your environmental administrative obligations, we recommend you contact the appropriate branch of the MELCC in that regard. For more details on managing your environmental risks, consult our legal update on the subject.
Extensions for certain reports
Although the MELCC announced it would relax certain administrative obligations, the timeframes for meeting these obligations have not changed other than in the two following cases.
Although section 4 of the Regulation respecting mandatory reporting of certain emissions of contaminants into the atmosphere11 provides that the deadline for reporting atmospheric emissions for the preceding year is June 1, the MELCC’s website now states the 2019 report must be filed no later than July 31, 2020. The same holds for distributors that are required to report their annual emissions attributable to the combustion or use of fuels distributed for consumption in Quebec; that report must also be filed by July 31, 2020, for volumes distributed during the 2019 calendar year.
As the measures and flexibility described above could change at any moment, it is important to keep a close eye on the situation. Our team is available to help you with your environmental legal needs no matter where you are in Canada.