There’s only one place in North America that still dumps
toxic waste straight into the ground without any kind of pre-treatment. A legislator from Ontario, Canada wants this landfill to clean up its act. But trade in toxic waste is big business. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Mary Ann Colihan follows some trucks to learn more:
There’s only one place in North America that still dumps toxic waste straight into the ground without any kind of pre-treatment. A legislator from Ontario, Canada wants this landfill to clean up its act. But trade in toxic waste is a big business. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Mary Ann Colihan follows some trucks to learn more:
(Sound of trucks)
6,000 trucks cross the Blue Water Bridge every day between Canada and the United States. Just under the bridge, Lake Huron funnels into the skinny St. Clair River on its way to south to Lake Erie. The Blue Water Bridge connects Port Huron, Michigan with Sarnia, Ontario. This is the second busiest truck crossing between the United States and Canada. With post 9/11 security, the border can get backed up for miles in both directions. A lot of these trucks are carrying garbage back and forth across the border. Canadian trash and toxic waste is going to the U.S. and American toxic waste is going to Canada.
During her first month in office, Ontario Member of Parliament for Sarnia-Lambton, Caroline Di Cocco, found out just how much toxic waste was coming into her district.
“In 1999 that year, it was over 450,000 tons. To put it in perspective, the Love Canal was 12,000 tons.”
Di Cocco went on a five year crusade to change the Ontario laws that govern the trade in toxic waste. She adopted the U.N. resolution known as the Basel Agreement, as her model.
“The notion from that Basel Agreement is that everybody should look after their own waste and it is not a commodity.”
Di Cocco is not alone in her fight to slow or stop the flow of garbage and toxic waste from crossing the border. Mike Bradley is the mayor of Sarnia, Ontario. He can see the backup on the Blue Water Bridge every day from his home.
“One of the ironies on this is that while Michigan is very much upset, and rightly so, with the importation of Toronto trash, there are tens of thousands of tons of untreated toxic waste coming in from Michigan crossing the Blue Water Bridge into the Clean Harbors site.”
The Clean Harbors facility is the only place in North America that does not pre-treat hazardous waste before it dumps it into its landfill. Frank Hickling is Director of Lambton County Operations for Clean Harbors. He says imports from nearby states in the U.S. accounts for about forty percent of its volume.
“It’s from the Great Lakes area. We do reach down and take waste that our facility is best able to handle. We’re right on the border.”
Rarely do lawmakers on both sides of the border agree on an environmental issue. But pre-treatment of hazardous waste is the law in all fifty states, Mexico and every other Canadian province and territory except Ontario. Pre-treatment reduces the amount of toxic waste or transforms it into a less hazardous substance. But Hickling says disposing hazardous waste in Clean Harbors is a better economic bet.
“Obviously, if you don’t have to pre-treat it, it is cheaper there’s no doubt about that. But what isn’t obvious is the security of the site. Pre-treating waste doesn’t help immobilize the material forever.”
Clean Harbors’ company officials say their landfill won’t leak for 10,000 years. They say that the U.S. pre-treats hazardous waste because they expect their landfills to leak in hundreds of years or less. Hickling says the blue clay of Lambton County that lines Clean Harbors landfill gives them a competitive edge as a toxic dump.
“The facility is in a 140-foot clay plain and we go down about 60 feet. So there’s 80 feet below.”
But Clean Harbors has had big environmental problems. When volume was at its peak in 1999 the Clean Harbors landfill leaked methane gas and contaminated water. Remedial pumping of the landfill is ongoing.
Caroline Di Cocco found other ways to deal with toxic waste rather than simply dumping it in her district.
“First of all, there has to be a reduction of the amount of generation of this hazardous material. The more expensive you make it for industry to dispose of it, the more they are going to find creative ways to reduce it. Then there are what they call on-site treatments and closed-loop systems. You see technology is there but it’s expensive and again we go to the cost of doing business. And so a lot of the hazardous waste can be treated on site in a very safe way. And then what can’t be, well then you have to have facilities to dispose of it. But I believe that the days of the mega dumps have to end.”
Meanwhile, Clean Harbors looks at what the new Ontario regulations for pre-treatment will cost them.
“Certainly when you’re making the investment in pre-treatment and you’re adding all that cost for no additional environmental benefit we’re going to have to be getting larger volumes to ensure its profitability.”
Until we see a reduction in the loads of toxic waste that need to be dumped in Clean Harbors, it’s likely the trucks will roll on down the highway.
For the Great Lakes Radio Consortium, I’m Mary Ann Colihan.