Solid Waste & Recycling


The Politics of Garbage

In April I had lunch with Gordon McGuinty -- the man responsible for the proposal to develop the Adams Mine in Northern Ontario into a large-scale landfill for Toronto's municipal waste, and other communities.McGuinty has written a book about...

In April I had lunch with Gordon McGuinty — the man responsible for the proposal to develop the Adams Mine in Northern Ontario into a large-scale landfill for Toronto’s municipal waste, and other communities.

McGuinty has written a book about his 14-year odyssey in the realm of discards. Entitled Trashed: How Political Garbage Made the United States Canada’s Largest Dump, the book was co-authored by long-time assistant Elizabeth Fournier and has a forward by Paul Godfrey.

Elevation Press’s news release for Trashed describes the Adams Mine as “a world-class waste management project that would have provided millions of dollars in economic stimulus to the region, and helped to eliminate Ontario’s garbage disposal crisis… A botched billion-dollar contract, environmental terrorism and a tale of political cowardice…”

McGuinty says his project “survived fourteen years of environmental assessments, four provincial governments, five municipal elections and an international cross-border trucking dispute, only to be trashed by the stroke of the political pen of Premier Dalton McGuinty. The roles of Mike Harris, Bob Rae, Jack Layton and Mel Lastman are laid bare for all to read.”

The project was killed at the political level by Toronto in 2000, and what McGuinty says were personal political agendas in the Ontario government in 2004.

“History continues to show that today’s politicians are more concerned with getting re-elected than making the right decisions for the environment,” says McGuinty.

This fits with my observations. Whatever one thinks of the Adams Mine project, several things are indisputable (and disturbing).

First, the project met all the criteria of the very challenging Environmental Assessment Act and had its Certificate of Approval. This is no mean feat. And the project had that rarest of things: a willing host community (Kirkland Lake). It’s reasonable to ask, What’s the point of getting an EA if politicians can cancel your project at the eleventh hour?

This question still haunts waste planning departments and discourages entrepreneurs and investors in the province.

Second is the way Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty (second cousin to Gordon McGuinty, ironically) drove a stake through the heart of the Adams Mine, lest it ever attempt to rise from its crypt. The story is too complicated to tell here (you’ll have to buy the book) about how Toronto Mayor Mel Lastman — during a municipal election in 2000 — refused to negotiate the final elements of a deal that would have seen the Adams Mine move ahead. It’s clearly an account of politicians caving to intimidation during a dicey election. But the consortium — C of A in hand — carried along as a private proposal. In 2004 the McGuinty Liberals passed the churlishly named Adams Mine Lake Act, which uses clever language to essentially prohibit worked-out quarries ever becoming landfills (despite the fact that these are often the most suitable spots). The Act defines a lake as “a body of surface water that results from human activities and directly influences or is directly influenced by ground water.”

The net (absurd) effect of this is to deem man-made holes in the ground unsuitable for waste disposal just because they’re partly filled with rain water, or perhaps some inward flowing groundwater.

The legislation continues to have a pernicious effect. This spring, Site 41 — a proposed landfill in Simcoe County that was in the works for decades and had an EA and C of A — was canceled by politicians. I happen to think that in this case the location may not have been good but, again, one has to wonder what’s the point of EA when this happens. Ray Millar, Chair of the Site 41 Community Monitoring Committee, wrote a letter to the current environment minister that underlines the effect of the legislation: “Not unlike the Adams Mine, absent extensive dewatering, the excavation required for cell development at Site 41, will certainly result in the creation of a ‘body of surface water.’ Given the acceptance of this definition, the provincial government has already made the policy decision that prevents the development of Site 41 as a landfill. Again, as was the case with the Adams Mine proposal, the policy decision is separate and distinct from the technical debate with respect to site safety, engineering or environmental safeguards.”

At the opposite end of the spectrum, there are those who would prefer we have little or no need for disposal at all, if the goals of Zero Waste could be achieved (even if imperfectly). An important step in this direction is ending the municipal taxpayer subsidy to the management of packaging and end-of-life products via extended producer responsibility (EPR). Ontario Environment Minister Gerretsen and his staff spent months preparing a revised Waste Diversion Act that would have achieved something like EPR in the province; it was due for First Reading in the legislature in June, but was postponed indefinitely due to pressure from regulated industry, whose costs would (of course) increase. So even the best waste diversion plans, sadly, are affected by the politics of garbage.

To order the book Trashed: How Political Garbage Made the United States Canada’s Largest Dump visit

Guy Crittenden is editor of this magazine. Contact Guy at

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