SCUGOG: Calls by Ontario's Environmental Commissioner for increased regulation and responsibility for commercial fill by industry and the provincial government were among the viewpoints heard at last week's Large Scale Commercial Fill Symposium in Port Perry.
The day-long event, held jointly between Scugog Township and the Kawartha Conservation Authority at the Scugog Community Centre on Jan. 25, drew a full house of 260 attendees from across southern Ontario, bringing every perspective on the issue together in one room. From politicians and civil servants at all levels of government to community activists and industry members, attendees gathered to discuss a topic that has quickly become among the most prominent issues in southern Ontario's rural communities. As development of condominiums and transit extensions continues in places like downtown Toronto, the excavated soil is often trucked out to countryside dump spots, creating a financial windfall for property owners willing to collect urban dirt and raising numerous environmental and quality of life issues for involved municipalities.
The day began fittingly with a recap by Scugog CAO Bev Hendry of the commercial fill issue in Scugog Township, which began in 2010 with the purchase of a Lakeridge Rd. property by Earthworx Industries that eventually became a contested commercial fill site, resulting in a protracted legal battle between the business and the municipality. A 2011 provincial court decision ultimately ruled in favour of the township, when judges turned down Earthworx's defense of federal aviation legislation (the company contended it was constructing an airport) trumping municipal site alteration bylaws.
The lessons learned in that scenario, said Ms. Hendry, have been applied by the township in its dealings with the new owners of the Greenbank Airport, who, in 2012, suddenly announced an expansion plan that would require 2.5 million cubic metres of soil, to be trucked into the Hwy. 47 aviation facility over the next two years to raise the grade of the property. A municipal permit for that project was approved last fall, following numerous public meetings and discussions between the township and airport owners over the preceding months.
"We learned a lot (from Earthworx)," said Ms. Hendry. "First, we realized that there is no government agency in charge of managing fill. We also learned to trust our gut -if you ever have a situation where someone plays the airport card and hangs a windsock, separate the airport from the fill.... The court decision for Earthworx gave us confidence to deal with this - that fill was in the jurisdiction of the township. This story is not finished yet, but the lessons we've learned have turned our role from reactionary to acting first."
Bringing a municipal viewpoint from the opposite end of the fill spectrum was Toronto Councillor Glenn De Baeremaeker. Known for his environmental views, the councillor outlined several eco-friendly uses for such material, which has been used to create nature sanctuaries such as Tommy Thompson Park on Toronto's Leslie Street Spit, a land feature that created entirely from leftover building material. The park has since become home to the largest colony of double crested cormorants in the Great Lakes and the largest colony of black crowned night herons in Canada.
"It shows that something good can happen from fill, especially if you plan in advance," said Councillor De Baeremaeker. "It all came from dirt. As a citizen, if you're talking about fill, it's bad. But fill is not going to go away - we're not going to stop building subways and LRTs. What we have to decide is what we're going to do about it. Are we going to fight over it, or minimize conflict and maximize our opportunities? There's many tools in the tool box that we need and fill is going to have to provide a net positive benefit for our environment and the public."
A familiar name since Scugog's commercial fill battle with Earthworx began almost three years ago, Carmela Marshall of community group Lakeridge Citizens for Clean Water informed attendees of the viewpoint from those living within close proximity of rural commercial fill sites. The group sprung up in reaction to the Earthworx site on Lakeridge Rd., raising concerns over potential impact to both drinking water and the natural environment from a fill site established on lands within the boundaries of the environmentally-significant Oak Ridges Moraine.
"The development boom has created a multi-million dollar industry," said Ms. Marshall. "But we believe that profits should not always come first. And in some cases, there's a blatant disregard for the law, such was the case in Scugog (with Earthworx). How this material is managed at the source and receiving sites plays a role. What's most concerning is the critical lack of testing for brownfield soils. The Ministry of the Environment doesn't currently require testing of material leaving brownfields, so often there's no record of soil removed or where it was sent."
Several other speakers identified critical gaps in provincial legislation that could potentially control the problems related with commercial fill. According to Josh Garfinkel of environmental group EarthROOTS and Chris Darling of the Central Lake Ontario Conservation Authority, the issue of land use must be addressed in legislation such as the Oak Ridges Moraine Conservation Plan to exert more control over how and where fill is dumped in rural areas. Mr. Garfinkel added that if the matter is left up to individual municipalities, a patchwork of legislation results with the potential for neighbouring communities to have vastly different policies on fill.
"It's clear that smaller municipalities have little power in stopping fill but it's left up to them by the province and that's a problem," said Mr. Garfinkel. "Fill is not a new issue but the amount has increased. Earthroots is not opposed to fill - it's about doing it properly. Something is not working when citizens and local government have to turn to us non-profits for assistance. With a million people on the moraine relying on groundwater, it would be disastrous if water were to become polluted."
The afternoon featured the industry perspective of commercial fill matters, including a presentation by Partick Dovigi, CEO of waste remediation business Green For Life, which has been involved in numerous developments along Toronto's waterfront, treating excavated soil for contaminants before its shipped to receiving sites.
The company will be one of the sources of soil for the expansion plans at the Greenbank Airport, owned by Green For Life's Bob Munshaw. GFL/Direct Line's Pickering location is also where trucks, hauling from former industrial sites on the Toronto waterfront, were sent for soil treatment prior to hauling the dirt to the Earthworx Industries fill site on Lakeridge Rd. According to a statement by the Ministry of the Environment dated April 12, 2011, GFL/Direct Line 'began accepting soils in June 2010 and shipped treated soils to Earthworx beginning in September 2010.' It's unknown whether or not GFL/Direct Line would have received any of the soil placed at the Earthworx site that tested positive for a number of chemicals in 2010.
Mr. Dovigi later told the audience that if a new proposal from an undisclosed buyer to purchase the former Earthworx site goes through, GFL has agreed to help clean up the property. What the clean-up would entail was not explained at the meeting.
According to Mr. Dovigi, the company has begun to work more closely with those municipalities in which GFL's soil is dumped. The process he described is similar to the conditions agreed to between Scugog and Greenbank airport - creating a fill receiving plan and management plan, while ensuring a consultant is retained for the duration of the project and information is shared with the public via related web sites. He added that involved municipalities are also sharing in revenues generated from fill, in addition to any financial securities posted by a site owner.
"From our perspective, there's three things we know for sure," said Mr. Dovigi. "There's more construction and more contaminated soil to get rid of. It comes down to compliance and how we do it. What we're missing is how a site actually works. There's certain challenges - many small municipalities don't have the expertise to deal with fill.... What we've found to work, in coming up with a model, is to create transparency and open dialogue. The next step is to consult with the local conservation authority, the Ministry of Natural Resources and residents' groups prior to applications. We've also developed protocol to deal with concerns, creating a public liaison committee to deal with theses issues. We have to take the approach that anything leaving a site is potentially contaminated. Uncertainty leads to problems and rumours."
Moreen Miller, CEO of the Ontario Stone, Sand and Gravel Association, told the audience that while former pits and quarries often used to receive fill are no longer under the organization's jurisdiction, she offered that increased control of such sites could be strengthened through clarified legislation at both the provincial and municipal level, regardless of boundary lines, adding that such material should be "going to the right places for the right reasons," such as the creation of ski hills or other uses. Ms. Miller also addressed the matter of site owners accepting soil for large payouts without doing the appropriate tests to guard against pollution.
"I'm not here today to tell you it doesn't go on," said Ms. Miller of dumping in old gravel pits. "We need to involve community-conscious companies (in managing fill). There's an elephant in the room - there's not enough money in the system to do the right amount of tests (for contaminants). You could spend $600 on tests and you still have to pay the driver. We're creating a system where there's not enough money so that everyone tests honestly."
Another problem, said Doug LeBlanc of soil management firm DLS Group, are inconsistencies in the testing process itself. Mr. LeBlanc, who was retained to inspect soil imported to the Earthworx site in 2010 and is now working with the Greenbank Airport project, told the symposium that certain chemicals, including mercury and benzene - "pass because there are problems in the testing process" used by most laboratories.
"Everything dumped at Greenbank is tracked by GPS and we can track each individual load," said Mr. LeBlanc. "We've turned down 10 sites since we've began."
As for who should be ultimately responsible for the disposal of such material, Gord Miller, Environmental Commissioner of Ontario, told attendees that increased scrutiny needs to come from the province through the Ministry of Housing and Municipal Affairs and Ministry of Infrastructure, as opposed to the Ministry of the Environment.
"It's not about filling - it's about digging holes," said Mr. Miller. "Would you have a fill problem if they weren't digging holes in Toronto? This isn't your problem - it's theirs. They dig a hole six stories deep and that dirt comes here and drives you people nuts. They dig that deep to park cars - because Toronto needs that. Most of the time, they don't use the parking. We're digging holes and moving dirt without good reasons. It's cheaper to move than to incorporate into design, because the problem disappears with trucks.
Mr. Miller added that its those site operators that skip testing in favour of maximizing profit that need to be reined in with a combination of provincial legislation and increased industrial responsibility for such material.
"Currently, there's a huge opportunity for unlawful activities," said the commissioner. "I'm confident we can regulate the honest world of fill, but you can't regulate the mafia. It costs a lot to get rid of trucks of dirt and sometimes there's little or no sampling or tracking.
"The MOE is not the mechanism, they just handle the bad guys," added Mr. Miller. "It's not the conservation authorities' problem, either. You've got to put the monkey on the right back - excavation of earth materials must be managed on a life-cycle basis. From cradle to grave, the responsibility is the creator's responsibility - whoever dug the holes should bear the full cost. That's the central concept that's missing - it's always been someone else's problem. Big holes are also the result of the MMAH and MOI policies. These ministries are driving this type of intensification. Let's get it solved where it should be solved - at Queen''s Park and downtown Toronto."
The last word of the day went to Scugog Mayor Chuck Mercier, who has been dealing with the issue of commercial fill since being elected into office in October 2010, just weeks after the township revoked Earthworx Industries' site alteration after soil tests revealed excessive amounts of certain contaminants.
"People have asked me, 'why don't you just ban fill?'" said the mayor. "That usually creates bigger problems and court challenges, especially when industry and others have measures to manage. It's just talk if we don't do anything from the outcomes of today."