Environmental Self-Assessment Handbook for Rail Infrastructure Projects

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Executive Summary

This guide has been written for both proponents and interested parties who are involved in an environmental assessment (EA) of a rail infrastructure project. The Canadian Transportation Agency has a responsibility to evaluate such projects in accordance with the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act (CEAA). Under the self-assessment process, where a department or Agency granting the project an authority conducts the assessment, the proponent, the Agency, other federal authorities, and interested parties each have a role to play.

This document outlines the:

  • filing requirements for an EA;
  • other federal authorities who can become involved along with the Agency in an EA;
  • possible outcomes of an assessment; and
  • importance of public participation and other factors in a typical EA.

Acronyms used in this handbook:

environmental assessment
Canadian Environmental Assessment Act
CEA Agency
Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency
Canadian Environmental Assessment Registry
Canada Transportation Act
project assessment committee
Federal Coordination Regulations
federal EA coordinator

To view the full terms and acronyms involved in environmental assessment documents, see the Environmental Assessment Terms and Acronyms.

What is an Environmental Assessment?

An EA establishes the environmental effects of a rail infrastructure project by identifying factors to be considered when making a determination.

It is a planning tool which:

  • identifies possible environmental effects;
  • proposes measures to mitigate adverse effects; and
  • predicts whether the adverse environmental effects will be significant after the mitigation is implemented.

There are two main purposes of an EA:

  1. To minimize or avoid adverse environmental effects before they occur; and
  2. To incorporate environmental factors into decision-making.

Other environmental studies are often confused with environmental assessment.

Environmental assessments are not:

  • site assessments that are used to identify the nature and extent of contaminants on a specific site; nor
  • audits that are used to evaluate the environmental management and regulatory compliance of a specific operation.

When evaluating a project, the Agency must be satisfied that the information presented is both complete and accurate.

When is an EA Required for Rail Infrastructure Projects?

The Agency requires proponents to include a project description in advance of their applications for certain rail infrastructure projects to determine whether the CEAA is triggered, thus requiring an EA. It also uses this information to determine if other federal and provincial authorities need to become involved in the EA and if a Project assessment committee (PAC) needs to be set up. If a PAC is necessary, the Agency may take the role of the federal EA coordinator (FEAC) and ensure coordination of the EA among the federal authorities.

Pursuant to section 11(2) of the CEAA, the Agency is prevented from allowing a project to proceed under the Canada Transportation Act (CTA) until an EA has been completed. The Agency is responsible for conducting an EA of the following types of rail infrastructure projects requiring an approval pursuant to the CTA:

  • approval to construct a railway;
  • approval to construct a railway across another railway;
  • approval to construct a road or utility crossing;
  • orders regarding service obligations;
  • orders regarding provision of convenient interswitching; and
  • approval for joint track usage.

The Agency has the authority to delegate portions of an EA to proponents through a scoping document, and provides project-specific guidance pertaining to these portions.

For more information on scoping documents, see the Environmental Assessment Scoping Document.

The Agency, or a PAC, evaluates projects pursuant to section 18(1) of the CEAA. Information submitted by a proponent in its project description, EA supporting documentation and associated filings or comments by interested parties form the basis of an EA.

What is a Screening?

Approximately 95% of all EAs conducted under the CEAA are screenings. Varying in length and depth of analysis depending on the circumstances, screenings are used to assess a wide range of projects. However, some projects that carry the potential for significant adverse environmental effects which could generate public concern require a comprehensive study.

When is a Comprehensive Study Required?

Two types of rail infrastructure projects require a comprehensive study headed up by the Agency:

  1. Construction of a railway line in a wildlife area or migratory bird sanctuary;
  2. Construction of:
  • a railway line more than 32 kilometres in length on a new right of way; or
  • a railway line designed for trains with an average speed of more than
  • 200 km/h.

The Agency may also become involved in a comprehensive study being headed up by another federal authority. Where a comprehensive study may be required, contact the Agency.

What are the Responsibilities in the EA Process for Screenings?

The following are the general responsibilities for an evaluation.


  • Prepares and submits a project description which triggers an EA under the CEAA;
  • Prepares and files its EA supporting documentation;
  • Facilitates engagement of Aboriginal peoples;
  • Provides the Agency with additional environmental information, as requested;
  • Responds to submissions made by interested parties; and
  • Implements its mitigation measures and follow-up, as required.

Agency (or Project Assessment Committee)

  • Determines whether an EA is triggered under the CEAA or can provide expert advice on the basis of the project description;
  • Determines the scope of the project, the factors to be considered and the scope of those factors;
  • Delegates components of the EA to the proponent via an EA scoping document;
  • Ensures that the project is evaluated and a report prepared;
  • Where it is the FEAC, co-ordinates the evaluation when two or more responsible authorities or federal authorities are involved;
  • Maintains a public registry – containing all records pertaining to an evaluation – from the notice of commencement of the EA until the follow-up has been completed;
  • Provides public notice that an EA is being conducted where public participation is appropriate;
  • Renders an EA decision taking into consideration the proponent's EA supporting documentation, the Agency's report and any public comments received in relation to the EA;
  • Renders its statutory decision under its legislation, only after making an EA decision; and
  • Ensures that any required mitigation or follow-up is implemented.

Other Responsible Authorities and Expert Departments

  • Both provide advice to the Agency on the quality and accuracy of EA supporting documentation, the significance of effects, the effectiveness of proposed mitigation and the preparation of a screening report;
  • Both act as part of the PAC; and
  • Expert departments assist in the preparation of the following documentation to advise the responsible authorities:
    • progress reports;
    • scoping document;
    • information requests; and
    • screening report.

PACs may also liaise with other levels of government having an interest in the EA. The objectives of a PAC are to provide timely EA advice to the responsible authorities, produce a screening report for approval by the responsible authorities and liaise with the proponent.

Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency (CEA Agency)

Visit the Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency's Web site for more information on Environmental Assessments at www.ceaa.gc.ca.

  • Acts as FEAC throughout an EA when a comprehensive study is necessary or other jurisdictions are involved;
  • Acts as the federal point of contact;
  • Coordinates the federal authorities' involvement with other jurisdictions; and
  • Ensures the timely exchange of information with those other jurisdictions.

Note: Interested parties, such as the public, may:

  • participate, at the request of the proponent, in the development of the EA;
  • comment on the completeness and accuracy of the EA supporting documentation; and
  • comment on the screening report or the contents of the Agency's public registry.

What are the Filing Requirements?

To avoid delays in the evaluation process, proponents are urged to file with the Agency prior to the Agency undertaking its EA:

  • a project description (electronic version and print copy); and
  • a general site plan (showing the location of the physical works and activities involved as well as the potentially affected environment).

Doing so will enable the Agency to consult with other federal authorities and to advise the proponent on the scope of the EA and the factors to be considered therein.

In support of an EA, a proponent is required to submit the following:

  • EA supporting documentation;
  • a mitigation outline (discretionary); and
  • a follow-up plan and reports (if required).

Detailed Project Description

The Agency requires two paper copies and an electronic version of the detailed project description well in advance of any application pursuant to the CTA. The proponent will be required to provide copies of the document directly to other government departments and agencies that are identified as having a potential interest in the project.

The Agency uses a project description to:

  • confirm that an EA is required to be conducted for a project;
  • determine the type of EA to conduct;
  • set the boundaries of the EA; and
  • support a consultation with other government departments and agencies to determine if they have a responsibility to conduct an EA for the project, or if they can provide their expertise to aid the EA.

For more information, see the CEA Agency's Preparing Project Descriptions under the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act.

EA Supporting Documentation

The Agency requires two paper copies and an electronic version of the EA supporting documentation after it determines that an EA is required for the project and provides the proponent with a project-specific scoping document. The proponent will be required to provide copies of the document to government departments and agencies that are involved in the evaluation.

The Agency uses EA supporting documentation to:

  • inform the EA decision;
  • supplement information included as part of the project description; and
  • report on the results of responsibilities delegated to the proponent pursuant to subsection 17(1) of the CEAA.

Proponents need to address all factors relevant to their specific project in their supporting documentation. For more information on what should be included, see the Agency's Environmental Assessment Scoping Document.

Mitigation Measures

Projects which are determined to have the potential to cause significant environmental effects will require mitigation measures. In these cases, the Agency requests that the proponent file the proposed mitigation measures that they have identified, as well as those identified by other federal government departments and agencies that they agree to implement. This document is submitted near the end of the EA process after the identification of mitigation measures has been completed by both the proponent and the expert federal authorities.

The Agency uses this document to inform the regulatory review of the application pursuant to the CTA.

Follow-up Plan

For some projects, a follow-up plan is necessary to verify the accuracy of the EA predictions. Although the plan for a follow-up is made at the beginning of the EA process, the plan is finalized and reports are submitted at the end.

These plans outline the follow-up required for the project, as well as identify the timing, reporting relationships and necessary actions resulting from the project.

The proponent may be required to prepare and implement a follow-up plan to:

  • address unforeseen environmental effects which may arise during construction or operation;
  • collect field data during both the construction (short-term) & operation (long-term) of the proposed diversions, in order to evaluate:
    • the accuracy of the EA;
    • the short-term effectiveness of mitigation measures;
    • the effectiveness of site restoration; and
    • the success in identifying and addressing unforeseen environmental effects as well as the long-term effectiveness of mitigation measures.

See the section below on implementing a follow-up plan for more information.

How Does the Agency Identify Who Needs to be Involved?

When submitting a project description for an EA, proponents are advised to indicate in their covering correspondence that the information is being supplied in accordance with the CEAA, and that it is not to be considered part of a project application pursuant to the CTA.

According to the Federal Coordination Regulations (FCR), once the Agency receives a project description, it will determine:

  • whether or not it is likely to be a responsible authority; or
  • whether it requires additional information to make this determination.

If the project description does not contain the required information, or if the Agency determines that additional information is necessary, the Agency may request this from the proponent.

The FCR requires that, as part of the coordination procedure, other federal authorities be identified to determine:

  • which are likely to be responsible authorities; and
  • if there are expert federal authorities in relation to the project.

The FCR includes time lines for the notification procedures, so proponents can know, in a timely manner, who will likely be involved in the EA for their project.

What are Some Other Considerations?

Aboriginal Engagement

The Agency deems communication and co-operation between federal authorities and Aboriginal peoples a significant consideration in an EA. As such, mutual respect for all parties and the participation of interested Aboriginal groups in consultations is an integral part of the EA process. The Aboriginal engagement process should be fair and transparent to maximize the contributions of all parties.

The Agency can delegate procedural aspects of Aboriginal engagement to proponents who can inform the EA decision through an inclusive and timely communication and co-operation process. The proponent's Aboriginal communication and co-operation plan and subsequent results of the contact should be included within the EA supporting documentation.

Public Participation

The CEAA allows for public participation in the EA process. Public participation, in a screening, is at the discretion of the Agency and depends on factors such as the nature of the project, its environmental setting and potential public concerns.

If the Agency decides to solicit public input as part of the EA, this input will be taken into consideration when it determines the next step in the EA process.

Where the Agency has determined that public participation is appropriate, it has the discretion to delegate procedural aspects of the public consultation to proponents. The public consultation plan and subsequent results of the consultation should be included within the EA supporting documentation.

Canadian Environmental Assessment Registry

The Canadian Environmental Assessment Registry (CEAR) is a government-wide mechanism to facilitate public access to records related to EAs conducted under the CEAA.

All records submitted as part of the EA process will be placed in the CEAR file for the project and as such will be publicly accessible.

The CEAR consists of two complementary components: the Web site and the project file.

The Web site, administered by the CEA Agency, contains key information about EAs conducted under the CEAA. A responsible authority or the CEA Agency contributes specific records relating to an EA to the site.

The project file is a paper file maintained by a responsible authority or the CEA Agency during an EA. It includes all records pertaining to the EA of the project. Copies of these records are available to the public upon request.

What is an EA Determination?

The Agency draws an independent /conclusion on the overall predicted environmental effect of a project, taking into account the proponent's proposed mitigation and any comments from interested parties. Once it has conducted an EA, the Agency can take only one of three courses of action:

  1. Permit the project to proceed on the grounds that potential adverse effects will not be significant, taking into consideration the implementation of the proposed mitigation.
  2. Refer the project to the Minister of Environment for a determination as to whether a panel review or mediation would be warranted because:
    1. potential adverse effects will be significant and cannot be justified;
    2. there is uncertainty about significance of effects; or
    3. public concern about the project indicates that a public review may be warranted.
  3. Withhold approval on the grounds that potential adverse effects will be unacceptable, taking into consideration the implementation of the proposed mitigation.

Should the EA determination permit the project to proceed, the Agency is in a position to accept the application for approval/authorization pursuant to the CTA.

What Should be Considered When Developing and Implementing a Follow-up Plan?

If the project requires a follow-up plan, the following questions should be asked:

  • What is the primary purpose of the program?
    • Is it to verify the accuracy of the predictions regarding the type, extent and severity of environmental effects that may occur?
    • Is it to verify that mitigation measures are effective and adequate?
    • Or is it both of the above?
  • Based on the purpose of the program, what should be measured? How? When? Where? And how often?
  • Will the proposed measurement techniques be able to distinguish between changes resulting from the project and changes resulting from other factors?
  • How long should the program continue?
  • Is the information being collected in the most efficient manner possible?
  • Are the relative roles of the proponent, responsible authority(ies), federal authority(ies) and other agencies clear in relation to the program?
  • How will the results be disseminated?

The proponent should also indicate how the public will be included in the follow-up process.

For further information on the Agency's EA process, please contact us:

Canadian Transportation Agency
Ottawa, Ontario  K1A 0N9

Web site:

For more information on Environmental Assessments, visit www.ceaa.gc.ca.

Available in multiple formats.

Catalogue No. TT4-17/2010

ISBN 978-1-100-51499-4

© Minister of Public Works and Government Services Canada
April 2010

Note: This publication provides guidance but contains neither binding statements of law nor policy

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