Will Toronto be a bully on garbage?

Adams Mine 1

Is might right? That appears to be the view of Toronto’s deputy mayor, Case Ootes, when it comes to deciding where to put the city’s garbage.
Ootes gave short shrift a week ago to people from the Kirkland Lake area who appeared before a joint meeting of the city’s works and finance committees to oppose sending the garbage north to the Adams Mine, a worked-out, open-pit iron mine in their area.

Toronto generates $4 billion a year in revenues that go to supporting municipalities across the province, Ootes said. « Sometimes,’’ he added pointedly in the direction of the Adams Mine opponents, « you have to take the bad with the good.’’

« Thanks a lot,’’ a voice dripping with sarcasm shot back from the bank of opponents in the city’s council chamber.

By the standard Ootes was applying, Toronto should be able to do damn well anything it wants elsewhere in the province, simply because it is economically powerful…and other municipalities should be pleased to kiss the hem of its skirts.

There’s a tremendous moral issue involved here, because Toronto won’t be held responsible if anything goes wrong with landfill operations. Under provincial law, only the owner of the landfill will be responsible. And, to be doubly on the safe side, the city will be negotiating a contract saying that the owner of the site will indemnify the city against all liability.

Hundreds of people have been demonstrating against this project. They have blocked the  Trans-Canada Highway and the Ontario Northland Railway tracks, so concerned are they that contaminants will leak from the mine into ground water.

The owner of the mine says it will be safe. But I wonder what the position of committee members would have been if the city could be held responsible. Would they have been prepared to bet the city treasury on the safety of the site?

Action without accountability, especially when it concerns the long-term health of others, is never palatable. And when the big and powerful force their will on the smaller and weaker, in the terms used by the deputy mayor, it is morally indefensible.

The one bright side to this disturbing drama is that the committee requested city staff to accelerate plans for reducing the amount of garbage targeted for landfilling. It unanimously passed a motion by councillor Jack Layton that focused particularly on using methane digesters to turn organic garbage into methane gas, water, and compost. The methane would be used to generate electricity, and to provide heating and cooling for downtown buildings.

In its main recommendation, the committee said that 900,000 tonnes of garbage collected each year by the city works department should go to the Adams Mine. And that 600,000 tonnes produced each year in the commercial, industrial, and institutional sectors should go to a landfill in Michigan.

If the methane digesters are built to handle all of Toronto’s organic and « digestible’’ garbage, what would be left over would split evenly between the two sites, with about 450,000 tonnes a year going to each.

The irony is that if the committee had recommended removing all « digestible’’ material from its garbage before shipping it to the landfills, perhaps the Kirkland Lake opponents wouldn’t have objected. Or, at least, would not have objected so strongly. Recyclables could be removed at the pit head, and only unrecyclable garbage would go into the pit — stuff unlikely to contaminate ground water.

In any event, the moral equation would have been entirely different. Toronto would be doing everything it could to lessen the potential for ground water contamination. It would be acting more responsibly.

On Tuesday, city council will be a making its decision. If it called for a maximum, immediate effort on removing « digestible’’ material from the waste stream before the 2002 closing of the Keele Valley landfill, and a maximum effort to remove the remainder of « digestible’’ material as soon as possible after that, it would go a long way toward mitigating the perception of arrogance and bullying that Case Ootes has created.



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