dumping_soilIf you drive along Ontario’s highways chances are you will see caravans of dump trucks. Many will be carrying some of the millions of tonnes of excess soil now being dumped in old gravel pits, wetlands, farmers’ fields, and at aerodromes. Just one project in Toronto could produce 150,000 truckloads of dirt to be dumped somewhere. The soil can be contaminated with petroleum, heavy metals, and other toxins and, in some cases, this dumping is unregulated and unmonitored. Groundwater and farmland are being threatened in many locations.

The Toronto area is experiencing some of the most rapid growth in North America with highway expansions, new subway projects, and condo developments. More soil is being excavated than ever before. Some of it may be virgin soil but in 2001 the Brownfield Act reduced the environmental liabilities on the redevelopment of potentially polluted land. This has added contaminated soil to the stream of dirt leaving the cities. The GTA produces 25 million cubic tonnes of excess dirt per year. That’s two and half million truckloads heading out looking for a place to dump. Enough soil to build a hill almost 300 meters high every year or, at one metre deep, covers 2500 hectares each year. At a single commercial fill dump site there has been a truck every minute of the work day.

Although protected from development, the Oak Ridges Moraine and Greenbelt have become a popular destination for this dirt and residents, municipalities, and Conservation Authorities have become increasingly alarmed. The natural rolling landscape is becoming dotted with dead level sites affecting surface water runoff and ground water recharge. One dump site on the moraine in an area defined as having a vulnerable groundwater aquifer was found to have soil with 3000 times the allowable limit for cyanide in soil. At another site a rural home’s drinking water well now contains dry-cleaning fluid – a known carcinogen. The Oak Ridges Moraine is a source of drinking water for over a quarter million people and the Greenbelt and rural Ontario is where our local food is produced.

There is no federal or provincial regulation that specifically tracks, assesses and enforces the movement and disposal of this dirt. The dumping of “clean fill” is regulated by municipalities, usually through their site alteration bylaws. The Ministry of the Environment will step in to order monitoring or removal when an adverse effect can be demonstrated or there is evidence to suspect it. However, there are no monitoring mechanisms, to assess if the dirt is “clean” or not. It is left to vigilant neighbours and a few proactive municipalities. Even then, there is not a defensible legal definition of “clean fill”. There are strong incentives to label any dirt as “clean fill”. “Clean fill” can be dumped for $50 a load or less. Contaminated fill would cost $750 a load to dump at an approved landfill or much much more if it was heavily contaminated and requires special treatment. An enforceable definition of “clean fill” must be developed.

There are provincial standards classifying soils according to the degree of chemical contamination and the use of the land. Table 1 is generally considered as natural, Table 2 suitable for an area where the groundwater is used for drinking, and Table 3 for lands where the groundwater is not used. (Tables 4 to 9 are for different situations, such as near water.) However these standards were intended to only be used for describing how clean a previously polluted brownfield must be to be able to be redeveloped. They should not be used to justify contaminating a clean natural environment.

bill_lishman_aerialA commercial fill operation may take place in a farmer’s field or in an old gravel pit one metre above the ground water accepting hundreds of truckloads each day with the attendant traffic, road wear, noise and dust that may go on for several years. Yet, in many cases, they are approved with a simple over-the-counter site alteration permit at the municipal office, without public notice or soil testing. A review of the by-laws in the area surrounding Toronto found only a handful of the municipalities monitored dumped soil for environmental quality or considered the impact on neighbours of hundreds of trucks a day coming to a commercial fill site. A small rural municipality does not have the technical expertise in this new area to draft an effective bylaw nor have the resources to enforce it properly. Fill site operators will go for the weakest link. There must be consistency of application in all of Ontario.

Some dump site operators say that they are building an aerodrome to accept private aircraft. They contend that as an aerodrome regulated by the federal Aeronautics Act they are exempt from any municipal or provincial interference. In two individual cases, court decisions have ruled in favour of municipal regulation of the incoming dirt and Transport Canada supported this in an advisory circular but the matter is not closed. Not all municipalities are aware of their rights to regulate the parts of an aerodrome that are not integral to aviation.

feb3lccwmeetingVolunteer community action groups have sprung up across the province with complaints to their mayors and members of parliament about witnessing debris in soil, petroleum smells, the daily barrages of trucks, the noise and dust and a real fear of their well water being contaminated. On their own, they have identified over a dozen dump sites with significant problems. Several of these groups have joined forces and created the Ontario Soil Regulation Task Force (ORSTF) dedicated to highlighting this issue on behalf of all the citizens across the Province for our health and safety. Industry associations and government agencies are also acknowledging (such as at a symposium held in January of 2013) that the problem needs solutions.

Prohibition is not the solution. Subways and foundations must be dug. Fill is needed to level cropland and for other construction projects. Many hard working honest people rely on jobs associated with excavating and the commercial fill business. Most are trying to do the right thing but regulation is required to provide a level playing field that also protects the human and environmental health.

Ontario Ministry of the Environment may step in under the Environmental Protection Act to order sampling of dumped soil and/or an Environmental Site Assessment and/or the monitoring of incoming dirt by an independently hired Qualified Person. They can order the removal of contaminated dirt. But this is on a case by case basis where a potential for an adverse environmental effect has been brought to their attention. MOE, with its expertise, environmental mandate, and regulatory clout is being looked to for providing a solution but their contribution has been limited to issuing a voluntary best management practise for managing excess soil.

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