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Toxic waste dumped into Niagara River a threat to Lake Ontario

In Issues
Sep 20th, 2014

Dump in Youngstown, N.Y., now being considered for expansion has been taking in toxic and radioactive waste since 2001

By David Israelson Toronto Star 

NIAGARA-ON-THE-LAKE–Remember the Love Canal ? Just up the road from that notorious toxic neighbourhood in New York state, there’s a new plan to dump more poisonous waste, including radioactive material, right near Lake Ontario and on an earthquake fault line.

New York state officials are now considering whether to permit a company called Chemical Waste Management Inc. to expand its landfill in Youngstown, N.Y., perilously close to the Canadian border — and our shared water.

Do we ever learn? The site is less than five kilometres from the Niagara River, already filled with so many chemicals that it’s listed as an official area of concern by the International Joint Commission that oversees shared Canada-U.S. waters.

Even more concerning for Canadians is that at least once a year, under U.S. permit, the existing New York-side landfill is allowed to dilute the cancer-linked PCBs and other materials it collects and discharge its nasty water into the Niagara River.

We ought to know better

On both sides of the border all of us ought to know better by now.

This landfill expansion scheme is unfolding nearly two generations after environmentalists took to the street, in Canada and around the world, chanting: “Dilution is not the solution to pollution.” They were right then and it’s still true.

We can’t just make toxic waste go away, no matter how much we wish we could. The nearby Love Canal neighbourhood, which was evacuated and bulldozed due to pollution, led to the creation of the U.S. Superfund program , designed to contain and clean up America’s worst toxic waste sites.

There was a Superfund cleanup at the Love Canal. But late in 2012, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency took steps to delist the site from the program, saying the work is done.

Perhaps, but as environmentalists say, everything ends up somewhere — interestingly, the Youngstown dump now being considered for expansion has been taking in toxic and radioactive waste since 2001, when the Love Canal cleanup was in full swing.

Clyde Burmaster, vice chair of the Niagara County legislature on the U.S. side, says that as alarming as this new plan is to his constituents, it should be equally frightening to Canadians, including people in the Greater Toronto Area.

“There is a mega-threat to both the U.S. and Canada,” he says.

“We feel there is strong evidence the landfill materials (at the site where expansion is proposed) are leaking out beneath ground and beneath the depth that the on-site soil is monitored, and heading directly into the Niagara River.”

Why aren’t Canadians doing more to stop this plan? The biggest reason is that so far, only a few Canadians seem to know about it.

Gary Burroughs, Niagara’s regional chair (on the Ontario side), says he found out about the scheme only recently, when Burmaster contacted him. He attended a public meeting on the U.S. side on July 16.

“I’ve been trying to raise attention about it since then,” he says.

Why hasn’t this drawn government attention?

You would think that a problem on the order of toxic and radioactive waste threatening Lake Ontario would draw the attention of the provincial and federal governments, but apparently it hasn’t. It’s possible that no one on the U.S. side has told the Ontario Environment Ministry anything officially, as this may not be required under law.

As for Ottawa, as many Canadians know, the federal government treats environmental protection as an enemy — Prime Minister Stephen Harper has cut environmental programs, muzzled scientists and ordered tax audits of environmental groups. It’s hard to determine what the feds would do or even if they would care.

At the same time, Canada’s environmentalists don’t seem to know about this problem either. A spokesperson for the David Suzuki Foundation, asked about the plan for more toxic waste at the edge of the Great Lakes, expressed shock and surprise.

To make matters worse, Burmaster says that the Chemical Waste Management site is on an earthquake fault line: “Should a quake happen and open the landfill . . . in just one hour those carcinogens and radioactive particles would become airborne and could be carried 60 miles (100 kilometres) away.”

Not to make this too scary, but as he says, that’s “all the way to the Toronto area.”

David Israelson is a Toronto writer and consultant

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