On a rainy day in July, I drove to the rural town of Pelham, Ontario, to visit citizens protesting against the disposal of papermill sludge on farmland near where they live. Sheltering from the rain inside an open garage, I interviewed a half-dozen residents about an enormous berm across the street that was the length of a football field and made from 20,000 tonnes of “paper fibre biosolids” — a sludge byproduct of paper recycling.
Having expected to see piles of cardboard-colored material, I was surprised to find a black and brown mountain literally oozing its chemical contents into the mud. (Papermill sludge is 50 per cent liquid.) In saner jurisdictions, the material is regulated as a waste and is landfilled or otherwise appropriately managed. In Ontario, the unusable short-fibre material — along with inks, dyes, clay, glues and other residue and any chemicals used in the recovery process — remains uncontrolled and is land-disposed in the ever-shifting, rotting berms. I was shocked to learn from the site’s owner that he plans to continue growing cucumbers beside the berm.
The environment ministry ignored warnings from the sensible residents until it was too late. Only days after I visited the Pelham site it became the subject of government cleanup order, contamination having (predictably) seeped into a neighboring waterway. Ministry tests showed that one litre of ammonia-bearing leachate from the pile could contaminate between 1,500 and 3,000 litres of water. Sadly, the situation in Pelham is being reproduced in similar sites across the province, including farm properties and many gun and skeet clubs where the berms catch bullets. The papermill sludge at Pelham comes from Abitibi Consolidated’s mill in Thorold, which alone produces 400 tonnes per day of the muck. Combined with other mills such as Atlantic Packaging in Scarborough, the industry generates hundreds of thousands of tonnes of material each year.
The loopholes that allow this questionable disposal method point up recycling’s dark side and the willingness of the province’s environment minister to protect corporate interests rather than those of the environment or ordinary citizens. The material used to be placed in landfill, but someone convinced the environment ministry that adding some sand made it a “product” exempt from regulation. (With that perverse reasoning, any toxic waste could be mixed with sand and be exempt from regulation.) Companies like “Berms-R-Us” build hills at golf courses, or sound attenuation berms made from “Sound Sorb.” Another produces animal bedding and an agricultural soil amendment product (“Nitro Sorb”) despite indications that the decomposing paper sludge causes crop damage to plants requiring nitrogen such as corn, wheat, etc.
This unregulated material has been piling up on agricultural land throughout Southern Ontario for more than five years, despite the fact that paper sludge has been shown to contain e-coli, fecal coliform, and hazardous bioaerosols. Contaminants of potential concern include total petroleum hydrocarbons, PAHs and lead. Acrylamide polymer (a known animal carcinogen), benzo[a]pyrene, MEK and phenol require further research; some may appear only after years of decomposition in a berm.
In January 2004, after years of complaints, the environment ministry formed an expert panel to study Sound Sorb. A year later in January 2005, the panel made six recommendations that included the need for long-term monitoring of groundwater at berm sites, and that all paper sludge should be composted before being used in berms. The mixture of sludge to sand should be 3-to-1, the panel said, and a hydrogeological assessment of the site should be done. Papermill sludge, even if mixed with sand or soil, should be controlled by Certificates of Approval at all stages from generation, transport, composting and final use in the construction of berms.
The recommendations made sense and almost everyone agrees. The citizens of Pelham are not the first to ask that the government take control. The Durham Region medical officer, the association of local public health agencies, the Haldimand Federation of Agriculture, Gord Miller — the environmental commissioner of Ontario, the Central Lake Ontario Conservation Authority have all urged the Ontario government to act immediately, as has a long list of communities including Whitby, Oshawa, Huntsville, Lincoln, Cayuga, Kawartha Lakes, Orillia, Aylmer, Haldimand, Niagara Falls, Flamborough, Hamilton, Brock Township, the Municipality of Clarington, among others. Sadly, municipal bylaws passed against sludge disposal have no legal power.
Despite the outcry, the recommendations have never been formally adopted, or even casually enforced.
This has led to an untenable situation in which soil and groundwater are potentially being contaminated and residents are forced to inhale dangerous dust and a horrible stench even as they watch their property values sink. (In some cases their homes are unsaleable.)
The Ontario government has been meadering down this dark and dangerous deregulatory course for too long. Atlantic Packaging is testing an incinerator for papermill sludge, which could solve some of the problem. However, until such solutions are proven, the environment ministry must immediately implement the recommendations of its own expert panel to protect human health, sensitive agricultural lands and our precious environment.
Guy Crittenden is editor of this magazine. Contact Guy at email@example.com