In recent years Ontario has required about a half-dozen facilities — mostly landfills — to host fulltime or “resident” environment ministry inspectors as a condition of their Provisional Certificates of Approval. This requirement was first applied to the Keele Valley municipal landfill in Vaughan (now closed) ostensibly to appease local interested parties and ensure that the facility operated according to the rules. Such requirements are good public relations, but they’re unfair, unevenly applied and enforced and, in at least one case, have led to abuse.
Resident inspectors oversee PSC Environmental’s Taro industrial waste landfill in Stoney Creek, Clean Harbor’s Lambton hazardous waste facility near Sarnia, LaFleshe Environmental’s landfill near Ottawa (and a new one in Moose Creek) and the disposal sites of a company that hauls papermill sludge for Atlantic Packaging. There may be others — even the ministry’s communications department seemed unsure if their list was complete — but it’s clear that these are high-profile facilities that have garnered at least some media attention in the past.
Let’s consider the concerns one at a time.
The first was neatly expressed by the Ontario Waste Management Association in a letter to the environment ministry in 2001. The OWMA said that in many cases the inspectors didn’t have sufficient experience or training to appropriately fulfill their inspection role. The organization was also concerned that resident inspection is imposed in an inconsistent and unpredictable basis.
My follow-up on this suggests that the inspectors receive a couple of week’s training on environmental enforcement in general, then a couple of weeks about landfill technology and other matters that relate to the specific facility for which they will provide oversight. There’s nothing wrong with this, but is such an inspector really more effective than different ministry staff conducting surprise inspections, each with distinct and, in some cases, more experience than the resident inspectors? Doubtful.
It seems unfair that resident inspectors are only required at “high profile” facilities. Their presence might even discourage some customers or encourage them to illegally dispose of certain wastes elsewhere. This penalizes the best facilities with the stigma that they need special oversight, and implies that others need less inspection. Enforcement of the requirement is ludicrously uneven. One industry insider told me about a landfill in southern Ontario the C of A for which requires a resident inspector. There isn’t one because the owner doesn’t want it and the environment ministry “hasn’t pushed the issue.” Hardly reassuring.
But the most disturbing aspect of resident inspection is the way some of these folks are paid. The environment ministry takes the position that the companies should pay the inspectors’ salaries, or reimburse the ministry. The way this is done is unique to each situation — there’s no rule. In some cases the resident inspector is a full-fledged oath-bound government employee with union and “whistle blower” protection, free to find fault with the facility they inspect without fear of retribution. But in other cases the company pays the person’s salary. The companies were initially to send funds to the government, which would pay the person’s salary. But sometimes the payment is made through a third party, usually a environmental consulting firm.
In such instances a government representative with police powers of search and seizure is working on contract, paid by the very company they’re supposed to investigate! This can lead to some disturbing situations.
Consider what happened in the environment ministry’s York-Durham office where the salary of the “biosolids coordinator” is paid by Courtice Auto Wreckers, whose subsidiary Ontario Disposal spreads municipal sludge. The funds go to consultant Burnside Environmental in Orangeville, who pays the salary.
This arrangement led to an unpleasant conflict of interest when the ministry’s contract representative started promoting what she thought were the company’s interests, not those of the public. Maureen Reilly, a sludge activist and outspoken critic of sludge disposal practices in the province, says she was harassed by this person. In a letter to Ontario’s privacy commissioner Ann Cavoukian, Ms. Reilly complained that the inspector “on several occasions discussed my marriage and real estate holdings with members of the public and derided my research to community members. She has no business discussing my private life or choice of residence with anyone.” Ms. Reilly says the inspector asked a former client to photocopy a cheque they’d issued to her. The client refused and the ministry ultimately let the inspector go, but her replacement’s salary is still paid by Burnside.
Cost recovery for the salaries of a half-dozen resident inspectors just isn’t worth these kinds of risks or even the perception of a conflict of interest. Inspection officers should be well trained, publicly accountable civil servants with whistleblower protection. They should inspect all kinds of facilities and they shouldn’t be on any company’s payroll, directly or indirectly. It’s time to end the PR exercise and protect the environment and human health.
Let the public pay the piper and call the tune.
Guy Crittenden is editor-in-chief of this magazine. Send your letters to: email@example.com