Environmental disasters in waiting
Walkerton was just the beginning. Old landfills, killer smog and hazardous waste could produce more tragedies, April Lindgren reports.
TORONTO — Environmentalists are warning that the Walkerton water tragedy may be just the first in a series of ecological disasters to befall Ontarians as five years of government cuts hit home.
Top candidates on the list of disasters-in-waiting include pollution seeping from old landfill sites, problems arising from massive imports of hazardous waste and growing health problems from killer smog. Earth and water contamination from defunct mines and the degradation of ground water are also near the top of the list for most environmentalists.
“I feel quite certain that unless we start putting a higher priority on environmental management, that we will face other risks,” said Eva Ligeti, an environmental lawyer who was the province’s outspoken environment commissioner until the government decided not to renew her appointment last year.
Dan Newman, the province’s beleaguered environment minister, dodged questions this week about other disasters lurking in the wings: “I’m going to do everything humanly possible to ensure that the environment is protected in this province for the people of Ontario,” he told reporters after a document surfaced indicating Environment officials knew of problems with the province’s water-quality monitoring system in 1997.
But critics point to deep cuts in Environment ministry staff and funding and aren’t reassured.
The Progressive Conservative government cut the Environment ministry budget to $158 million this year, down from about $290 million in 1995-1996. Ministry employees number about 1,500 today, compared with 2,450 at the beginning of the decade.
“We’re getting to be like those Third World countries which have rules on paper which mean very little because they are not followed up and monitored and audited,” Ms. Ligeti observed.
Jerry DeMarco, a staff lawyer with the Sierra Legal Defence Fund, rejects suggestions that environmentalists are crying wolf in the wake of Walkerton, where as many as 11 people have died after drinking water grossly contaminated with E. coli bacteria.
“People had grave concerns about the safety of our water as soon as the large cutbacks began at the Environment ministry,” Mr. DeMarco noted. He added that environmentalists who predicted big problems with pesticides, climate change, species extinction and water quality have all been proved correct over time.
“The vast majority of the time,” he said, “the environmental alarm bells have rung true.”
Environmentalists from the major provincial organizations came up with a remarkably consistent list when asked about environmental disasters waiting to happen. Here are the top five nominees:
1. Hazardous waste that just keeps on coming:
Hazardous waste imports into Ontario from the United States surged between 1993 and 1998, rising to 288,000 tonnes a year from 52,439 tonnes. The imports include everything from dry-cleaning chemicals to electronic equipment laced with toxic substances.
Critics attribute the increase to lax disposal rules in Ontario at a time when the United States has been tightening up landfill regulations. Environmentalists worry the nasty stuff will end up in landfills meant for more benign substances or that Ontarians will be stuck with environmental messes down the road if existing toxic waste dumps go bad.
“We already have a history of bad news in Ontario involving hazardous waste,” says Mark Winfield, director of research at the Canadian Institute for Environmental Law and Policy.
The government last year closed a loophole that allowed waste management giant Philip Enterprises Inc. to mix hazardous waste with cement and then dump it in a Hamilton-area landfill that isn’t licensed to accept toxic garbage. Citizen activists did most of the leg work that exposed the problem.
Despite promises of further change, Ontario still allows waste deemed too contaminated for U.S. landfill sites to come north for disposal.
2. Leaky old landfill sites:
The provincial government has updated standards for the design and operation of new dumps, but environmentalists point out that hundreds of old ones can still come back to haunt us.
“There are fewer and fewer Environment ministry staff who are responsible for looking after more and more sites,” warns Rick Lindgren of the Canadian Environmental Law Association.
“For the most part, we’re expecting landfill operators to monitor ground water and surface water and air emissions — we’re relying on the industry to tell us if there is a problem.”
While the owners’ reports must be filed with the Environment ministry and reviewed by staff at regional offices, there are fewer employees in those offices as a result of the government’s decision to shrink the size of government.
In Kingston, it was a private citizen who sounded the alarm about contaminated springtime runoff into the Cataraqui River. Her efforts culminated in a $150,000 fine against the city. The fine is under appeal, although studies have linked the leaking landfill to PCBs, DDT and other pollutants in the river’s sediment.
The dump, meanwhile, lies under a park that is home to children’s summer camps and a municipal golf course.
3. Provincial rule changes that make life easier for the mining industry:
The Ontario government is relaxing the financial guarantees required from mining companies as insurance against environmental cleanup costs when a firm goes broke or shuts down without cleaning up its mine site.
The changes, effective later this year, will create “ticking time bombs,” say environmentalists who note the province is already littered with 6,000 abandoned mines, including at least 200 that are known to pose environmental risks. Most sites pre-date tougher financial assurance requirements introduced by the NDP government in 1991.
“Maybe this government will save money on the bureaucracy by not requiring financial assurances, but just one case where they are stuck with a contaminated mine site will eat up all the savings,” predicts Mr. DeMarco, the lawyer with the Sierra Legal Defence Fund. Even as it plans to give mining companies a break, the province announced it will spend $27 million cleaning up some of the old abandoned sites.
It is also grappling with a legal and environmental mess at the abandoned Deloro mine, north of Belleville.
The province got stuck with the mine 20 years ago when its owner went broke. Some cleanup work has been done at public expense, but arsenic left over from the mining process continues to leak into the Moira River that runs into Lake Ontario.
Deloro residents have launched a $25-million class-action suit against the government, charging that the pollution has devastated property values. The Sierra Legal Defence Fund has instigated quasi-criminal charges against the province for offences including pollution of the river. And the government estimates cleaning up the environmental damage will cost taxpayers at least $18 million.
Under the new provincial regulations, companies with an “A” credit rating will be exempted from the financial security requirements. Triple “B” rated companies, such as Inco and Falconbridge, will have to turn over bonds and other financial guarantees halfway through the life of their mines. Less creditworthy operations must continue to post bonds, the amount based on a standard formula, before receiving permission to proceed with a new mine.
Critics wonder who decides when a mine’s life is half over and point out that a company’s financial situation can change very fast.
Environmentalists are also spooked by plans to change the way mine-closing plans are approved. Right now, plans are developed in co-operation with government experts. By the end of the year, it will be enough for companies to draw up plans that comply with a government code and have them signed by a professional engineer engaged by the company.
In anticipation of the change, the Ministry of Mining and Northern Development has reduced the number of inspectors who work on mine-closing plans to two from six.
4. Smog — the silent killer:
Health officials report that smog is already making many Ontarians sick and killing others. The Ontario Medical Association estimates that breathing bad air kills about 1,800 people prematurely each year. Toronto’s Public Health Department recently released a study suggesting 1,000 city residents die annually from smog-related illnesses such as heart failure and pneumonia. As many as 5,500 more are admitted to hospitals.
With southern Ontario already in the midst of its second smog alert this year, the provincial government agreed this past week to reduce emissions of smog-causing nitrogen oxides and volatile organic compounds by 45 per cent by 2010, five years ahead of an earlier deadline. The commitment, however, is conditional upon the Americans making a similar pledge. And environmentalists point out that there is no law requiring Ontario industries to meet the target — it’s all voluntary.
“We have gone from being a lead jurisdiction in fighting air pollution to being one of the worst polluting jurisdictions in North America,” says Dan McDermott, director of the OntAIRio Campaign.
Mr. McDermott, the federal government and others argue that Ontario’s failure to introduce strong smog-reduction measures undermines Canada’s ability to argue for pollution control in the United States, the origin of 50 per cent of Ontario’s smog.
The province has introduced car and truck inspections to get gross polluters off the road, but environmentalists note that gains from the program are relatively small in terms of overall smog.
In the meantime, the government has committed $1 billion to highway improvements this year but abandoned all funding of public transit systems.
Under pressure from anti-smog activists, the province recently put plans to sell the Lakeview coal-fired electricity plant near Toronto on hold for two months.
The concern is that a private-sector owner will further undermine air quality by running the smog-producing plant full time. It is currently used to meet peak periods of electricity demand.
5. Ground water — a resource in trouble?
Ground water, located under the Earth’s surface and tapped via wells, is the drinking-water source for up to 90 per cent of rural Ontarians, notes Ms. Ligeti, the province’s former environment commissioner.
“But Ontario doesn’t have a system that tells us how much water is there and we don’t have an understanding of all the things that are polluting and stressing it.”
The government recently promised to spend $6 million over three years to install a network of monitors to track groundwater quality and quantity.
But it has also gone before the Ontario Municipal Board and used other legal tools to fight municipalities’ efforts to curb the size of new mega-farm operations that produce tonnes of manure. Runoff from farmer’s fields is a key suspect as experts search for what contaminated Walkerton’s water supply.
The government also has resisted demands for a moratorium on extensive housing projects on the Oak Ridges moraine, a ridge of land north of Toronto and the source of major rivers in the south of the province.
And bottled water companies continue to receive permits to draw massive amounts of free water from the ground, although the government moved last year to restrict bulk shipments out of the province.
“Unless we get a system in place where we track how much groundwater there is and sort out who is relying on it and what we need to do to preserve it, we are proceeding on a wish and a prayer,” Ms. Ligeti warned.