The Canadian Environmental Protection Act

The main federal legislation focused on pollution prevention and the regulation of toxins and waste is the Canadian Environmental Protection Act, 1999 [1] (CEPA). CEPA’s preamble begins by outlining the legislation’s overarching goals, including the prevention of pollution.[2] CEPA then goes on to define pollution prevention as, “the use of processes, practices, materials, products, substances or energy that avoid or minimize the creation of pollutants and waste and reduce the overall risk to the environment or human health.”[3] CEPA provisions also strive for the virtual elimination of releases of substances that are persistent, bioaccumulative, toxic, and primarily the result of human activities.[4]

Two major environmental principles are included in the CEPA. First, is the polluter pays principle which states that the person creating the pollution should be responsible for the clean-up and associated costs.[5] Second, is the precautionary principle which states that when there are any potential threats of environmental damage, full scientific certainty of these risks is not necessary before action should be taken to prevent or mitigate the threat.[6]

Amendments to the CEPA are currently in front of the federal government. The new Bill introduces the principles of a right to a healthy environment, the principle of non-regression, and environmental justice to the Act. It also proposes certain changes to the substance classification process.[7] Keep an eye out for which changes get adopted.

Both of these important environmental law principles are discussed further in our Fundamentals of Law section, which you can find here.

Another important tool authorized by CEPA is a substance classification list which classifies those substances that are toxic to human, or non-human, organisms.[8] If a substance is found to be toxic or presents some form of risk, the substance will undergo a screening level risk assessment which tests whether the substance is, in fact, toxic or has the ability to become toxic.[9] Following this test, and if a substance is determined to be toxic, it can be added to CEPA’s Schedule 1 or ‘List of Toxic Substances’.

If a substance is added to this list, it triggers further action including the creation of regulations, pollution plans, or environmental emergency plans to manage and mitigate risk.[10] Risk management plans may include regulations, pollution prevention plans, environmental emergency plans, guidelines, codes of practice, and administrative agreements, all with the goal of controlling toxic substances.[11]

In addition to regulating substances currently being used and sold in Canada, CEPA regulates any new substances being introduced into Canada and requires that before being manufactured or imported, new substances are properly assessed for toxicity.[12]

Finally, CEPA regulates how and when toxic substances may be discarded or emitted, including the disposal and emission of substances at sea, which is governed by permits and compliance monitoring[13] as well as transportation (fuel and vehicle) emissions.[14]

CEPA is the cornerstone of pollution prevention and toxic substances regulation on the federal level. However, like most pieces of legislation, it is not perfect and is often criticized for being slow-moving and full of procedural delays.[15] These delays have sometimes meant that even after a substance is deemed toxic, it still takes months or even years before it appears on the toxic substances list and even longer before it is phased out of our consumer products.[16]

A regular review of CEPA began in 2016, and throughout the process, critics came forward to call for more enforcement and monitoring powers. Finally, in October 2017, the Government of Canada acknowledged the review, promising to have a response to the suggested changes by spring 2018. As of early 2021, updates have not yet been released.

<< Toxins & Waste

Alberta’s Environmental Protection and Enhancement Act >>

[1] Canadian Environmental Protection Act, 1999, SC 1999, c 3.

[2] Canadian Environmental Protection Act, 1999, preamble.

[3] Canadian Environmental Protection Act, 1999, s 3(1).

[4] Canadian Environmental Protection Act, 1999, preamble.

[5] Canadian Environmental Protection Act, 1999, preamble & s 287(c).

[6] Canadian Environmental Protection Act, 1999, preamble & ss 2(1)(a), 6(1.1).

[7] Bill S-5, Strengthening Environmental Protection for a Healthier Canada Act, 1st Sess, 4th Parl, 2022 (second reading 7 Apr 2022).

[8] Canadian Environmental Protection Act, 1999, ss 66, 73, 76(1) & Sched 1.

[9] Canadian Environmental Protection Act, 1999, s 74.

[10] Canadian Environmental Protection Act, 1999, ss 91(1), 56(1), 199(1)(a).

[11] Government of Canada, “Guide to Understanding the Canadian Environmental Protection Act: Chapter 5” (20 March 2017) online:

[12] Canadian Environmental Protection Act, 1999,  s 66(2).

[13] Canadian Environmental Protection Act, 1999, Div 3.

[14] Canadian Environmental Protection Act, 1999, ss 153-155.

[15] Joseph F. Castrilli, “Canada’s main environmental law isn’t working” (29 July 2016) The Star online:

[16] Maggie MacDonald, “Have your say on the Canadian Environmental Protection Act” (17 November 2016) Environmental Defence Blog, online: