[Should industry be allowed to police its own environmental practices? This Canadian Press news wire story examines the problems faced by Canadian volunteer community groups concerned about health and safety issues at local plants. These groups, including the Inverhuron and District Ratepayers’ Association, learn the hard way that questioning the law or large industry comes with a price.]
Canadian Press – Sunday, August 04, 2002
TORONTO (CP) – The plight of a group of northern Ontario residents selling off cattle to pay for an environmental review of a proposed PCB incinerator is a sadly common one because Canadian laws allow companies to commission their own assessments, critics say.
Citizens in Kirkland Lake, Ont., say Bennett Environmental Inc., the company that has applied to the Ontario Environment Ministry for permission to build the hazardous waste dump, should be forced to pay for an independent environmental assessment.
“I’m not going to make any money from this plant. Why should I have to pay to make sure it’s safe?” said John Vanthof, president of the Temiskaming Federation of Agriculture, a lobby group that represents local farmers.
Environmentalists say the group’s plight is all too familiar across Canada, blaming environmental assessment laws that allow companies to commission their own safety reviews.
“Those results are hard for people to trust,” said Michelle Campbell, spokeswoman for the group Canadian Environmental Defence.
“Companies should have to put up funds for an independent safety assessment.”
Scientists hired by Kirkland Lake locals warned that contaminants from the plant – which will treat PCBs, Agent Orange residue and dioxins – could build up in livestock and be passed on to humans through milk.
Flour mills and milk producer Parmalat have said they’d have concerns about agricultural products from the area if the plant was built. The incinerator would be the largest of its kind in Canada, bringing in 300,000 tonnes of toxic waste a year.
Area farmers have already spent $60,000 on scientific experts and lawyers to evaluate the risks involved so they could write a report for the government to challenge the proposal. Vanthof estimates that’s only about 15 per cent what it will cost if they have to take the matter to court.
Farmers who belong to the group have all committed to sell one cow and hand over the proceeds to pay the bills.
Charlie Angus, a spokesman for a group of residents fighting the incinerator proposal, said people have taken leaves from their jobs to work full-time on the campaign, writing 40,000 letters of concern to the government. They have also spent thousands of dollars on experts in order to understand the documents on Bennett’s application.
Marilyn Churley, Ontario’s NDP environment critic, said that the Conservative government gutted protections under the environmental assessment act and “put the burden of proof entirely on concerned residents.”
In 1996, the Tories scrapped a program that ordered companies proposing industrial projects to give money to the public to hire technical and legal experts to review it.
Ariane Heisey, a spokeswoman for Ontario’s Environmental Assessment and Approvals Branch said the public can be confident in the system.
“Over 38 reviewers from federal and provincial government agencies who are experts in their field review the company’s proposal,” she said.
At the federal level, legislators are working on improvements. Jim Clarke, director of legislative affairs with the Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency, said the government hopes amend the act to make funds available for the public to participate more fully in the process.
Richard Lindgren, a lawyer for the Canadian Environmental Legal Association, said nothing short of complete funding for independent reviews will be enough.
“It really turns these situations in a David-and-Goliath story,” he said. “These are multi-billion dollar projects and the people most affected are left scrounging for pennies to mount a rigorous assessment. It’s totally unfair.”
That’s an understatement, said a community group in southern Ontario that was ordered to pay more than $100,000 in court costs for fighting a proposal by Ontario Power Generation to expand the Bruce Nuclear waste dump.
In the end, the Inverhuron District Ratepayers Association lost their appeal and the project was approved.
“The system absolutely stinks. It’s not a level playing field,” said Normand de la Chevrotiere, a spokesman for the group. “I mean, how far is a volunteer community group expected to go when they are concerned for their children’s health?”
Campbell said that while most citizens’ groups give up early in the process, similar battles are being waged across the country.
“The situation is not uncommon. We get calls from people asking for help challenging environmental assessments every week, and we try to find them lawyers and consultants at reduced rates.”
Last week, the Conservation Council of New Brunswick slammed the province’s environmental-impact assessment process, saying it will never work as long as companies are allowed to hire their own consultants to do environmental reviews.
The situation is improving in Manitoba, however, now that the new NDP government has reintroduced intervener funding.
“It’s not enough, but it gives you some money to hire technical experts,” said Glen Koroluk, a spokesman for Hogwatch Manitoba, a group calling for environmental controls on the hog farming industry.
Before such funding was available, Koroluk said he spent three years and thousands of dollars fighting a the establishment of a landfill. In the end, the project approved by the government.
“It was very discouraging. You always have this sense that the deals are already done and they’re just going through the motions.”
© Copyright 2002 The Canadian Press