Ontario’s environment ministry has endorsed a questionable plan to increase the size of a leaking rural landfill in Victoria County that sits near the banks of a major watercourse. The story of how it did this, then misled the public, suggests there’s something terribly wrong with the approvals process that the province claimed its recent tinkering with would improve.
The quaint town of Lindsay (northeast of Toronto) straddles the Scugog River, part of the federally regulated Trent-Severn Waterway that has more than 70 locks and is one of Canada’s greatest cottage recreational areas. Downstream communities take their drinking water from systems connected to Scugog River, including Bobcaygeon and Sturgeon Point.
The Lindsay-Ops landfill is located where the river empties into Sturgeon Lake. The landfill has leaked ever since it opened in 1980 and has contaminated local groundwater. The dump has been scheduled to close numerous times — most recently last year — and was eliminated early on from a site selection process conducted under the province’s Environmental Assessment Act.
“In an internal ministry memo, the official worries that the decision may not be traceable.”
However, for reasons that remain unclear, in 1998 then-Environment Minister Norm Sterling short-circuited the process that had short-listed three other sites. He moved expansion of the existing landfill to the top of the list. In fact, it was Victoria County’s idea to deposit an additional million tonnes of waste at the site and expand its borders to within 500 metres of the Scugog River. The landfill abuts provincially significant Class I wetlands that are supposedly protected by special provincial guidelines. The use of controversial liner technology is supposed to alleviate concern. Also, large numbers of seagulls at the site pose a significant threat to aircraft from a nearby airport.
Local opposition to the plan has been fierce but as recently as July of this year Environment Minister Dan Newman signed and sent letters to opponents to assure them that no approval had been granted and that the matter was still under review.
However, in early August the minister was forced to admit that he had already approved the project on May 31 and that the environmental assessment and review were finished. (Ironically, this was the very same day that the government announced an inquiry into the E. coli drinking water contamination that devastated the Town of Walkerton.)
Ontario Premier Mike Harris admitted on August 16 that Mr. Newman had bungled the landfill approval and that it was “embarrassing.” But he resisted opposition calls to fire the young minister or to order an inquiry. Mr. Newman apologized and called the whole affair an “administrative error.”
It’s quite possible that the misleading letters to the Lindsay-Ops opponents were a clerical mistake, but the possibility of political interference was not easily downplayed. Mr. Newman is a friend of the premier who also comes from North Bay. Furthermore, the landfill is in the home riding of Chris Hodgson, a cabinet colleague of Mr. Newman and former minister for natural resources. Mr. Hodgson is also a close friend and confidante of the premier.
Government communication about the whole affair was not reassuring. John Macklem, warden for Victoria County, conceded that it’s a “roll of the dice” as to whether the expansion can be done without environmental damage.
“But it will be a roll of the dice wherever it will be located,” he told reporters.
Mr. Newman said the site is 650 metres from the river, whereas the law requires only a 500-metre separation. But topographical maps show that the boundary of the planned expansion is, in fact, 500 metres from the riverbank and maybe even less.
Government documents suggest that, at the very least, the province shrugged its shoulders and downloaded its rightful responsibilities to the municipal level.
Documents obtained by the Toronto Star reveal that from the start there was concern both inside and outside the environment ministry about the County’s plans to circumvent the list of already-approved sites and fast-track the Lindsay-Ops expansion. Placing this option above the others was at the very least “questionable” according to one ministry official’s note.
A letter dated May 1987 from the ministry’s approvals branch to Wes Abbott — engineer for Victoria County at the time — states, “Thank you for the … letter which requests Approvals Branch input … to enable the County to begin the site selection process at the Lindsay-Ops landfill site instead of at the three ‘short list’ site locations.
“Your proposal may have a consequence on the due process portion of the County’s Environmental Assessment.” (Emphasis added.)
At the time, Toronto lawyer Doug Hatch, who acts for a local opponent, warned the ministry that any process that didn’t ensure detailed comparisons with the other candidate sites would be contrary to the Environmental Assessment Act.
In an internal ministry memo, the official worries that, “The decision to select the Lindsay-Ops site as the preferred alternative over all other possible sites may not be a traceable decision.” His handwritten notes beside this statement indicate that the proponent (Victoria County) will be accountable in future, not the environment ministry.
Interviewed in mid-August after the controversy erupted, Mr. Hatch commented, “You may as well repeal the legislation. It means nothing.”
What is one to conclude?
The Harris government streamlined the EA Act but proponents are still required to meet its basic requirements. The process is meant to ensure that decisions are evaluated on their environmental merits and not moved forward from political expediency.
Common sense suggests that the Lindsay-Ops landfill should be closed and that the legally required process should select another site. In the alternative, the public deserves nothing less than a full account of why this bizarre decision was made, and by whom.