Key CEPA facts

The “Catchall Law”: The Canadian Environmental Protection Act (CEPA)

CEPA is the abbreviation of the Canadian Environmental Protection Act  (French: Loi canadienne sur la protection de l’environnement). It is an environmental protection law that has been in force in Canada since 1999. Its purpose is to prevent environmental pollution and protect human health against the risks posed by toxic substances. The law was passed in 1988 and revised in the 1990s. The new version came into force in 2000.

Persistent toxic substances (POPs), in particular, which can travel far and wide and accumulate in the environment for a long time, were targeted by CEPA for the first time in Canadian history. Special attention has also been paid to bioaccumulative substances, i.e. substances that can accumulate in living organisms. Examples of listed substances include chromium, cadmium, aluminum, and formaldehyde. The aim of CEPA is to eliminate these types of particularly hazardous substances altogether and to preserve ecosystems and biodiversity in Canada.

CEPA also regulates pollution problems that other Canadian laws do not address. It provides the legal basis for a number of federal environmental and health protection programs.

These include the following:

  • Assessment and management of risks from chemicals, polymers, and living organisms, plus programs that focus on air and water pollution, hazardous waste, air pollutants, and greenhouse gas emissions;
  • Marine waste disposal;
  • Environmental emergencies.

CEPA is considered to be a “catchall law”. Its purpose is to prevent potentially hazardous substances from being accidentally released into the environment due to legal loopholes, for instance.

The effects of the CEPA law are supposed to be reviewed every five years, however, it has only been reviewed once so far in 2017. The results were published under the title “Healthy Environment, Healthy Canadians, Healthy Economy: Strengthening Canada’s Environmental Protection Act”.

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The CEPA Act stipulates that new substances manufactured or imported into Canada must be assessed for their health and environmental risks. The risk assessment is carried out jointly by the two governing bodies Environment and Climate Change Canada and Health Canada. The New Substances Program deals with the assessments, taking into account the Chemicals Management Plan (CMP). Specific substances or groups of substances can be searched for in a list that is publicly accessible.

The substances regulated by CEPA also include 23,000 substances that can be found in the Domestic Substances List (DSL), including microbial strains and complex microbial cultures. Both genetically modified and naturally occurring organisms are evaluated. The New Substances Notification Regulations (Organisms) are relevant in these cases. In 2015, CEPA was expanded to include a paragraph on nanomaterials, which means substances with particles between 1 and 100 nanometers in size must now be reported to the Canadian authorities.

The substances classified as hazardous under CEPA are grouped into two different lists with different priority levels:

The First Priority Substances List (PSL1) originally listed 44 substances and groups of substances that are “toxic” to human health under §11(c) of CEPA 1988. However, seven compounds were removed from the list between 1992 and 1994 or remain under review.

The Second Priority Substances List (PSL2), published in 1995, lists 25 substances. Among them are individual chemicals, plus compounds, wastewater from textile factories, road salts, and respirable particles measuring 10 micrometers or less.

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If an offense is committed under the CEPA Act, the catalog of fines stipulated in the Environmental Enforcement Act (EEA) applies. This is an omnibus law on fines and penalties that has reformed and harmonized nine different environmental laws. The EEA aims to ensure federal environmental laws are applied more consistently. Administrative monetary penalties under Parts 7 and 9 of the CEPA Act are set out in the Environmental Violations  Monetary Penalties Act (EVAMPA) and have been specified in the Environmental Violations Administrative Monetary Penalties Regulations (AMPs Regulations). According to these regulations, violations of CEPA are subject to certain minimum fines, which are further increased upon conviction. They range from $5,000 to $6,000,000.

Other regulatory enforcement actions relating to CEPA include:

  • Penalty notices if written reports are missing, for example
  • Bans, recalls of illegal substances, or orders to stop illegal actions or to require lawful ones
  • Injunctions
  • Criminal prosecution by the public prosecutor’s office
  • Warnings with the opportunity for alleged offenders to carry out measures that ensure compliance
  • Orders regarding the illegal release of regulated substances, specifically regulating the handling of these substances.

Offenses are specified in the CEPA Act and regulated in a separate regulation: the Regulations Designating Regulatory Provisions for Purposes of Enforcement (Canadian Environmental Protection Act, 1999).

It is also possible to make an arrest – even without a warrant – or to seize items and evidence.  Even vessels suspected of being used to carry out an offense can be detained or diverted on the basis of the CEPA Act and the EEA. Convictions or charges under the EEA can result in prison sentences of up to three years. Offenses prosecuted under CEPA are published in regular reports by the Canadian Department of the Environment.

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Official page of CEPA:Link
Background and further information on CEPA:Link
CEPA original text:Link
Canadian government guide to understanding CEPA:Link
Page with an overview of Canada’s federal environmental and health protection programmes:Link
CEPA evaluation report from 2017:Link
Government of Canada page on the New Substances Program:Link
Canadian government page on the Chemicals Management Plan:Link
To search the CEPA list of substances and substance groups (substance lists):Link
To the Domestic Substances List (DSL):Link
To the “New Substances Notification Regulations (Organisms)”:Link
To the First Priority Substances List (PSL1):Link
To the Second Priority Substances List (PSL2):Link
Fines under the Environmental Enforcement Act (EEA):Link
To the administrative monetary penalties in the Environmental Violations Administrative Monetary Penalties Act (EVAMPA):Link
Detailed penalty provisions under “Environmental Violations Administrative Monetary Penalties Regulations (AMPs Regulations)”:Link
Offences under the “Regulations Designating Regulatory Provisions for Purposes of Enforcement (Canadian Environmental Protection Act, 1999)”:Link
Page with regular reports and statistics on CEPA from the Canadian Ministry of the Environment:Link