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Federal Court judge scraps Ottawa's green light for CN Rail hub in Ontario

A massive rail-and-truck hub in the Greater Toronto Area faces uncertainty after a Federal Court decision overturned Ottawa's approval. The court ruled that the federal government overlooked the potential harm to human health, specifically related to air quality, in the case of Canadian National Railway Co.'s (CN) planned facility in Milton, Ont.

The court's decision, delivered by Judge Henry Brown, invalidates the green light granted by the cabinet in January 2021, prompting a reevaluation of the $250-million project by Ottawa. The project, in planning for several years, involves CN doubling its existing rail line and constructing a hub in Ontario's Halton Region for the transfer of containers between trucks and rail cars.

Critical to Canada's busiest region, the facility would operate 24/7, accommodating diesel-powered trucks making 800 daily round trips and four trains hauled by diesel locomotives, known for emitting toxic pollutants, as highlighted in the judgment.

CN responded to the ruling by stating that it is currently reviewing the decision. The company emphasized the rail-and-truck hub's significance as a crucial piece of infrastructure in the busy Greater Toronto Area. CN also noted that federal authorization came after an extensive environmental review, resulting in approval with 325 conditions aimed at safeguarding the community and the environment.

Doug MacDonald, CN's chief marketing officer, emphasized the project's alignment with the Canadian government's commitment to addressing supply chain issues and enhancing the transportation system for the benefit of Canadians. MacDonald stated, “This project is fundamental to that effort.”

Before the government's approval, an expert review panel raised concerns about the rail facility's potential adverse impact on human health, particularly regarding air quality. Judge Brown highlighted that the cabinet and the then-environment minister, Jonathan Wilkinson, failed to consider or reference this finding in their decisions, calling it "inexplicable."

Judge Brown pointed out the failure of the cabinet to address the project's significant adverse environmental effects on human health as a fundamental flaw in their justification decision.

The legal battle involved the federal government and CN Rail on one side, and Halton Region along with its four municipalities and the Halton Region Conservation Authority on the other. Following the court's decision, Halton chair Gary Carr expressed satisfaction, stating, “Our concerns about the health and safety of our residents have been heard loud and clear.”

The future of the CN Rail hub project now hangs in the balance as Ottawa must revisit the approval process, taking into account the court's concerns about potential harm to human health and environmental impact.

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