Ingersoll mayor Ted Comiskey has twice travelled to Toronto City Hall to implore councillors there to get Toronto’s trash problem under control. The city-owned Green Lane Landfill, in Elgin County, south of London, will eventually run out of space, and a private company has already filed an application with the provincial Ministry of the Environment to open what he calls a “mega-dump” in his town. And Ingersoll is not the only target — firms are making 13 environmental-assessment applications to open or expand landfills all over the province. These applications all have one thing in common: neither mayors nor city councils have any say in whether they’re approved.
Progressive Conservative MPP Ernie Hardeman wants that to change, and he’s presenting a private member’s bill at Queen’s Park to give municipal councils a meaningful say in landfill decisions.
“This goes beyond the situation in my riding,” says Hardeman, municipal affairs critic for the PCs. “Any community outside the 905 to the provincial border is a potential site for future mega-dumps. Under the current legislation, they get no say.”
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Comiskey and Zorra Township councillor Marcus Ryan were at Queen’s Park to show their support for Hardeman’s bill.
“Ontario has a garbage problem, and it’s getting bigger,” he said, noting that the Environmental Commissioner of Ontario estimates that the province produces 6.7 million tonnes of waste annually.
“To put it into context, that’s enough to fill the Rogers Centre 74 times,” Comiskey added.
Given the sheer volume of waste, the limited lifespans of existing landfills, and the lack of welcoming jurisdictions outside of Ontario, Comiskey says the next unwelcome landfill could be anywhere.
Darren Fry, project director for Walker Environmental’s proposed southwest landfill — the project that Comiskey and Ryan are most concerned about — agrees with at least one part of that diagnosis: Ontario’s landfill industry is undersized (we export roughly a quarter of our waste; exports to Michigan rose 19 per cent last year alone), and existing sites are running out of room. There are currently 670 landfills across Ontario.
“The mayor’s accurate,” he says, “There’s a deficit in Ontario’s current capacity; the existing landfills are reaching the end of their lives.”
Fry cites figures from the Ontario Waste Management Association that show that the province’s current facilities will run out of room in 11 to 16 years if no new capacity is found.
However, Fry disagrees with Comiskey’s warning that new sites could be coming to Anywhere, Ontario, some day soon: most operators, he says, are looking to expand existing sites, not open new ones.
Needless to say, Fry thinks Hardeman’s proposed bill would not be good for the industry.
“It would introduce a whole series of challenges, as far as local politics are concerned. Which municipality gets to decide? What happens if a lower-tier municipality says no but an upper-tier municipality [like a county or region] says yes? How does that work with the province’s overall regulation of these facilities?” Fry asks.
Hardeman’s bill would require that MOECC not approve a landfill site unless a municipal council or First Nation band council had first passed a resolution of support. However, Hardeman may not get a chance to actually debate the bill at Queen’s Park in the nine weeks left before the June 7 election.
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There are numerous industrial activities in Ontario that municipalities don’t have the power to regulate — some because they’re regulated by the federal government (TVO has covered Halton Region’s battle with CN Rail previously), and the province can’t give municipalities powers that fall within federal jurisdiction. And even in cases when the province does have power, some industries have traditionally not been subject to municipal approval: power plants (including, more recently and infamously, wind turbines), mines, and landfills are all regulated directly by the province.
And the Ministry of Environment and Climate Change, which approves landfill sites, doesn’t require municipal consent before giving the final okay. Minister Chris Ballard didn’t give any indication that that was going to change anytime soon when he spoke to reporters on Thursday.
“Our focus is on reducing landfill in Ontario, quite frankly,” Ballard said. “Before any landfill site is approved, there needs to be substantial study and real deep consultation with the community.” Ballard also noted that the province provides some financial assistance to municipalities for solid-waste management.
But Comiskey and Ryan weren’t at Queen’s Park asking for money or consultation — they were asking for a real say in siting these facilities in their communities.
Hardeman and his municipal colleagues came to the provincial capital armed with polling revealing insights that border on the obvious: landfills aren’t a terribly popular industry — nearly three-quarters of those surveyed opposed accepting landfill waste from other communities — and a large majority of respondents believe that municipalities should have a say in new landfill approvals.
Given public opinion, Fry says he’s not confident that a new landfill could ever get local political support if Hardeman’s bill were passed.
“Waste isn’t generated just in one’s own municipality; it’s a shared provincial responsibility,” he says. It follows, he argues, that the province’s “overarching, coordinated, and integrated” regulation should be maintained.
But Ryan said the intent isn’t to shut down all new landfills everywhere in the province. Hardeman, Comiskey, and Ryan cited examples from other industries, such as casinos or even Ontario Power Generation’s intermediate-level radioactive waste repository, that have relied on municipal and First Nations support, but are not private companies (OPG is owned by the province, as is Ontario Lottery and Gaming, which chooses casino sites in the province).
“We’re not philosophically opposed to there ever being another landfill again,” said Ryan. “But right now, the kind of conversation a community can have around nuclear waste, we’re not even allowed to have around a plastic bag.”