Few situations puzzle me like the failure of successive Ontario environment ministers to properly regulate papermill sludge — a waste byproduct of paper recycling. Incredibly, the government continues to ignore the sensible recommendations of its own expert panel, convened four years ago to develop solutions. The government’s torpor is allowing questionable disposal practices to continue that disrupt the lives of rural residents concerned about the long-term safety of their drinking water aquifers.
In Ontario, Atlantic Packaging is the major recycler of paper and other fibres collected via the blue box. “Paper fibre solids” resulting from its process used to be landfilled — a significant cost to the business. A waste disposal entrepreneur devised an ingenious alternative. He mixed the decomposing papermill sludge with about 30 per cent sand and gravel, and labeled the mixture “Sound-Sorb,” then used the material to build berms at such places as auto speedways (to attenuate sound) and gun clubs (to catch bullets).
Ontario’s environment ministry accepted that Sound-Sorb is a “product” and instead of managing it as a waste via Certificates of Approval — which offer extensive oversight and control opportunities — signed a weaker Memorandum of Understanding with Atlantic Packaging. This saves the company millions in landfill tip fees. While the province probably thought it was helping divert waste from landfill, the move had the unintended consequence of pitting recycling against the goals of environmental protection; it turned out that the sludge berms were not as benign as originally thought.
In several locations, contaminated leachate from the berms has forced the ministry to order the excavation and removal of material, at great expense.
As just one example, In the August/September, 2006 edition of this magazine I wrote an editorial entitled, “Sludge: It’s not just for breakfast anymore.” The editorial described the situation in Pelham, Ontario where a berm had been constructed in an environmentally sensitive area from 20,000 tonnes of fibre biosolids. The material contained inks and dyes (as one would expect from magazines and newspapers) as well as contaminants of concern such as total petroleum hydrocarbons, PAHs and lead. E. coli and fecal streptococcus have been found in some berms. Acrylamide monomer (a known animal carcinogen), benzo[a]pyrene, MEK and phenol may also be present and require further research; some may appear only after years of decomposition in a berm. Acrylamide is usually present in high concentrations. Local opposition and contamination of an ecologically sensitive wetland adjascent to the berm eventually led to removal of the material.
Such situations could be avoided if the government implemented the six recommendations that its expert panel laid out in its January 2005 Report of the Experts Panel on Sound-Sorb.
The first recommendations was that, “There is no need to ban the use of PFB mixed with mineral soil (Sound-Sorb) for bulk use in berms.” The second stated “There is no need to remove the OSGC berm provided long-term monitoring of the groundwater is continued.” The experts then recommended that existing berms at other gun clubs should have a hydrogeological assessment, and that a monitoring regime be established in accord with a special algorithm. “Removal of a berm would only be appropriate” they wrote, “as a mitigation option if contaminants in excess of the Ontario Drinking-Water Quality Standards were found in groundwater leaving the site or significant risks to human or environmental health were found on an SSRA or other risk assessment.”
The fourth recommendation (one of the most important) stated that, “PFB should be composted before it is used in a berm” (as is done in the UK). The fifth and sixth recommendations stipulated that, following a hydrogeological assessment (and a risk assessment if necessary), Sound-Sorb production and land application should be controlled by a Certificate of Approval or other legal instrument that provides equal or better protection for human health and the environment.
The recommendations are, if anything, conservative; no one’s attempting to ban Sound-Sorb — just hold the companies accountable and prevent pollution by choosing sites carefully and monitoring for potential impacts.
Yet, the ministry continues to ignore the recommendations, with predictable consequences.
In April the Port Stanley News reported on a kilometer-long berm proposed for the St. Thomas Dragway near Sparta, Ontario. Journalist Francie Dennison wrote about a second delegation at the Central Elgin Council meeting of April 14, 2009, that presented a “warp speed” plan to start berm construction just two days later. Staff were concerned that the area’s native sandy soils have a high susceptibility to contamination from surface sources and a study identified 22 water supply wells within a one km radius of the site. They noted that ministry studies at other Ontario sites indicate Sound-Sorb may contain elevated levels of heavy metals including copper and lead, and the provided studies didn’t provide information related to the design or noise attenuation benefits of the proposed berm (about which staff were skeptical).
Municipalities and concerned citizens would be spared the kind of battle that’s about to erupt in Sparta if the environment ministry would implement the recommendations its own experts made four years ago — something recently demanded by the Association of Public Health Associations (ALPHA).
We call upon Minister John Gerretsen to take action now, or face 300 angry Spartans at his door — a situation that history tells us is best avoided.
Guy Crittenden is editor of this magazine. Contact Guy at email@example.com
“The environment ministry should implement the recommendations its own experts made four years ago.”