The fight over a local landfill proposed for Tiny Township just east of Collingwood, Ontario neatly illustrates the problem of where we should dispose of garbage — at least the portion that remains after recycling and composting; this is becoming a crisis in some places (I believe a manufactured one).
Many consultants think that aggressive three-stream collection and other practical programs can divert about 60 per cent of waste from landfill, leaving 40 per cent for disposal. Large regional landfills and modern incinerators would be the common-sense destination for this 40 per cent residue, but politics has stymied most proposals.
Vancouver, BC recently secured the enormous Ashcroft property for use as a future landfill to take care of its long-term disposal needs, but local activists are stalling the plan; they say more must be done first to boost diversion. In April 2004 Ontario’s government introduced new legislation to effectively expropriate and ban the proposed Adam’s Mine landfill near Kirkland Lake. This enormous worked-out iron-ore pit would have provided long-term disposal capacity for the province. In addition to having successfully passed the province’s torturous environmental assessment process and having a valid license from the Ministry of the Environment, the Adam’s Mine also had that rarest of prizes — a willing host community. What a shame!
New incinerators are even more unpopular with politicians than large landfills, despite their proven safety and success in Europe and elsewhere. (See “Option Six” in Cover Story, page 8.)
Few other options remain. There’s waste export (as per Toronto), but this is also unpopular and politicians seek to end it. Some new technologies (e.g., anaerobic digestion) hold promise (see Cover Story of next edition), but the lack of full-scale commercial success stories suggests these may be a long way off from real-world application.
So communities have only one option left: construction of small and medium-sized local landfills. Yet these are no cake-walk either and can take decades to win approval.
That brings us to Tiny Township (east of Collingwood) and its proposed “Site 41.” Site 41 is located on a 60-hectare parcel of land, a third of which is slated for landfill. About $8 million has been spent so far on land acquisition and studies since discussions began way back in 1979, with nothing built to date.
The area is near my home and I can attest that anti-Site 41 signs dot the landscape on the highways and byways throughout Simcoe County. There are signs in Coldwater, Wasaga Beach, Stayner and Port McNicoll. They’re affixed to trees in Waubaushene and Fesserton, and in shop windows in Springwater, Barrie and Orillia. A group of local residents has fought the proposal since its inception and even runs an anti-Site 41 website (www.stopdumpsite41.ca) that offers information that questions the findings of technical experts.
I attended a meeting of Community Monitoring Committee (CMC) in December. In the crowded basement of a small municipal building, the CMC members spent most of the evening debating the wording of a Site 41 brochure that Simcoe County proposed to distribute in the community.
An audience of Site 41 opponents — many of them farmers and other people with properties adjacent to the site — sat in their winter coats and boots on fold-up chairs, grumbling at various points in the discussion. When the floor was opened up to questions, certain depositions elicited applause; some official responses were met with hoots and hollers.
It was classic public-process theatre, with people stepping into what have become traditional roles in situations like this across the country. Though the opponents are often dismissed as NIMBYs, these folks are the interested watchdogs of society and this is grassroots democracy at its most fundamental, gritty level. While their neighbors stay home and watch television, these opponents will ensure that if the landfill is eventually built, modifications made at their behest will make it more environmentally sound.
There were a few extremists in the crowd, but many of the opponents struck me as reasonable people. They’re in good company, too, since Environmental Commissioner Gord Miller wrote in his report to the legislature last year that the Site 41 site selection process should be reviewed. Site 41 will be an engineered landfill using “natural attenuation” — a “hydraulic trap” concept that exploits the local groundwater’s upward gradient flow to help prevent the outflow of leachate. Opponents are concerned this may not work, and have pointed out that the gradient in the northwest corner is downward. The County consultants have agreed they must somehow induce an upward gradient there. That corner will be the last place where garbage will be disposed, about 30 years from now; more should be known about the risks by then.
The detailed technical arguments for and against Site 41 are too complex to analyze in this space. But one thing is certain: No matter how much we reduce, reuse, and recycle, some portion of waste will always remain for disposal, and politicians have ruled out the large-scale and remote options. So many more communities will have to accept small or medium-size landfills in their midst, and ordinary people will find themselves stepping into the almost scripted roles of opponent or proponent.
There will be Site 41s everywhere.
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