Wednesday, May 17, 2006

The local landfill

I attended a public meeting last Monday, held locally by the Department of Resources in charge of our township's dump. If I understand the situation correctly, our dump was established in 1950, on what was then a convenient, if not environmentally appropriate, site. Important date, that. The site is in fact a flood plain. Toxins have been leaching from the flood plain into the swamplands, the tributaries, and into Lake Scugog.

In 1975, for political reasons obscure to me (which no doubt made perfect sense at the time -- I'm guessing the township was spared the looming burden of federal environmental standards, while Durham was awarded a plumb Waste Management contract) management of the township's dump was transferred to the Region of Durham -- the dump (i.e., waste management) and nothing else (water, hydro, any other public resource you care to name is the township's to deal with). Durham hosts Oshawa and environs, Ontario's politically hot "905" region, a population of half-a-million and growing. At the moment, Durham and Toronto are sending their trash to Michigan. Michigan will at some point close the border to these exports, and Ontario will be facing a genuine emergency. Residents in our township have two concerns: 1) the dump's increasing toxicity, and 2) the possibility that said emergency will require us to play host to a sudden staggering influx of 905 garbage.

Durham held this meeting in order to address these public concerns. First impression: wow, do we have a lot of pissed-off farmers! And for good reason: they haven't been able to drink their own well water for the last four years, or spread their own cow manure on their own fields. Durham routinely tests the groundwater for "trace elements" -- toxins considered to be a dependable indicator of the presence of other, greater toxins -- but this is a cost-effective test, and not an exhaustive test. A handful of farmers have sent water samples to independent labs for exhaustive testing, and the test results confirm toxic levels of mercury, lead and other heavy metals. Expensive tests, done on the farmers' own dime, and typically ignored by the government in office who finally defer to the test results submitted by their own Department of Resources.

Second impression: the Waste Management suits aren't "bad guys". They're trying to do the right thing, within the budgetary contraints set by the government in office, which is ostensibly set by the people who voted them in ("Say, kids: who wants higher taxes?!"). They acknowledge at the outset that waste is a problem. They've sought out and accepted their jobs because they have a vested interest in dealing with the problem, not because they want to get rich quick.

So Waste Management holds these meetings in hopes of keeping the locals calm: Public Relations, in other words. To this end, they informed us that 1) because of the legal conditions set in the 1950 public agreement, they are under no obligation to close or dismantle the landfill; 2) an environmental assessment is underway, conducted by an organization that meets the current government's standards, and the assessment will make recommendations that the Department will be obliged to meet; 3) emergency 905 dumping is the distant third and final resort (along with farmland expropriation) in the event of a closed Michigan border.

Residents stood up and shouted, Resources took a deep breath and repeated the same three points. Again, and again, and again.

Quite a depressing experience for yours truly. Going in to the meeting, I probably couldn't have said what I was anticipating. But coming out I realized what my tacit expectation had been: a democratic forum. I don't believe that's what I witnessed. The overriding enterprise was a public relations effort on behalf of Durham Waste Management. This isn't an inherently bad thing -- it simply wasn't the expected enterprise. I didn't expect it, and neither did anyone else attending the meeting. They attended in the slender hopes that their concerns would be heard and acknowledged as valid, and that immediate remedial action would be taken.

But this was not the public's forum, it was the Department's. This was a platform for the Department to communicate to the residents that the Department's mandate is being followed to the exact degree that funding and legality permits. Every one of the township's residents could have shown up and taken turns saying whatever the hell they wanted to say -- it didn't matter. It wasn't their meeting.


Trent Reimer said...

Alas and alack, perhaps we need to appeal to the popularity of the Simpsons to bring back the true town hall meeting?

Whisky Prajer said...

"Monorail! Monorail!! MONORAIL!!!"