Ever feel something dirty's going down in your 'hood? No, not the shady characters lurking in the bushes or the suspected grow-op in your neighbour's basement, but something a little less apparent to the naked eye: chemical contamination. Whether buried in the belly of an abandoned factory, embedded in backyard soils or pumping out of local business stacks and exhaust pipes, pollutants can be anywhere, any time - and decades into the environmental movement, it turns out you have no right to know.
Considering all the promises to implement community right-to-know regs going as far back as the 80s (including recent ones buried in the Liberal platform), there have been few changes. The city of Toronto even had a bylaw drafted at the tail end of the decade, but shelved it when the province promised it would implement it at the provincial level.
But perhaps the shroud of secrecy surrounding toxic sites is less surprising when you realize that both businesses and residents are often gunning for the same thing: keeping toxic properties hush-hush.
Nowadays, you might be able to find out who the top polluters are in your town from federal Web sites, but if you try to find out who's storing what chemicals, which old buildings are contaminated or whether your neighbour's veggie garden is oozing toxins, you're likely to get little more than a good-luck pat on the back.
"As a purchaser of the land, you can get the information before you buy (though even this isn't mandatory), but as a neighbour of the land, you have no access to knowing whether or not you're living next to a historic toxic dump site or a place where there was a toxic spill," explains Toronto Environmental Alliance (TEA)'s Katrina Miller.
To drive the point home, the Toronto Cancer Prevention Coalition, of which TEA is a member, recently conducted a case study in the Beaches-South Riverdale area to try to access info about what cancer-causing chemicals were being manufactured, used, transported and disposed of in those communities.
Considering the 'hood's history of chemical use in smelting and refining, and many small to mid-size industries currently in operation, you'd figure there'd be plenty of dirt to dig up. But after using all the public government databases and information routes it had access to, the group found little. Access to relevant, reliable and user-friendly info, it concluded, is a serious concern.
The championed National Pollutant Release Inventory is a prime example of just what's missing. Yes, the site is heralded as the feds' biggest community right-to-know initiative yet, and its Web site is great for telling you what chems major polluters are blowing out their smokestacks in your area code, city or province.
But it only catches the really big, bad polluters, "people who are throwing kilogram after kilogram of mercury into the air and enough dioxin to actually poison our food," explains Miller. "What it doesn't catch is any mid- or small-range polluters, and it certainly doesn't catch historic pollution. It does nothing to tell a community whether or not toxic materials are being stored next door either."
And a site that did, Canada's E2 Environmental Emergencies site, yanked public access to its database of companies storing 174 chemical substances on their property just a few months ago for "security reasons." Turns out the Canadian Association of Fire Chiefs expressed concerns that flagging chemical storage locations was an invitation to terrorists, even though the Web site was designed as a way to prepare neighbourhoods (and fire departments) for chemical fires and the like and was cleared by CSIS.
"I was surprised that Environment Canada took the Web site down on such a flimsy basis," says Mark Winfield, director of the Pembina Institute's Environmental Governance Program. "It's a very direct attack on the principle of right to know." Adds Winfield, "Since 1987 there have been vastly more extensive (community right-to-know) requirements in the U.S. than in Canada, and there's absolutely no evidence of the information being used for criminal purposes.' (U.S. sites, though, have also been yanked since 9/11 for "national security" reasons.)
Of course, the whole info scenario changes if you have the cash. Pay a professional research company like EcoLog Eris a few hundred bucks and information that might take you weeks or months to collect through freedom of information and the like, if you can find it at all, is packaged and ready to go in a couple of days.
A layperson's search for data on a mixed industrial, commercial and residential site in the west end, for instance, turned up dribbles here and there. But when NOW contracted a search from Ecolog (which has access to over 280 databases with 2.1 million records), a whole different story emerged. Maps and documents pinpoint which companies within 250 metres of the complex NOW picked at random were storing high-level PCBs on their property (several business, actually), who tossed PCBs and heavy metal acids and who's living on top of an old landfill from the 50s.
It also lists mishaps like the dozen chemical leaks at one factory - mishaps that contaminated soil or spilled the neurotoxin toluene into storm sewers, causing "probable" damage to the water system. Fascinating reading. But not the kind of info that would make condo owners in the area very happy.
Which brings us to perhaps the biggest obstacle to developing right-to-know regs: property values.
"People who live in an area where they discover contaminated land are in a Catch-22 - they don't want it to become public because then the value of their land decreases, even if their yard is not contaminated," says NPD enviro critic Marilyn Churley. "To be known as an area where there (is or was) contaminated land can stigmatize that area for many years."
It happened in South Riverdale 20 years ago after notorious massive lead contamination findings and their consequent cleanup. So when, in a separate incident, residents in Churley's riding more recently discovered that the soil in their yards was contaminated thanks to garbage-burning at an old city dump as well as tar-dumping by a roofing company, people were very hesitant to go public.
Says Churley, "I've dealt very quietly with the Ministry of Environment over a number of years, and although there are still some issues to be resolved, we were able to get the contaminated soil in the worst yards cleaned up."
No surprise, really, that the quiet approach is also favoured by the polluters themselves. "Don't forget, a lot of contamination occurred historically when there were no regulations," says Janet Bobechko, head of the environmental law group at Goodman and Carr. "You dumped your waste out the back door because it was the practice of the day, not because you were a bad operator. Companies are very leery about how the public interprets that information, so they do require confidentiality."
Same goes for developers who snatch up brownfields, or old industrial sites, and renovate them. The public, says Bobechko, doesn't discriminate between the old biz that caused the contamination and the developer who comes in to clean it up. "If they're trying to do something good, why would you put them through the wringer?"
But what about those like Riverdale lead villain Canada Metal Co. that just walk away from contaminated sites without cleaning up their mess? Shouldn't the public have the right know if they're living next to a toxic time bomb?
Documents from the city say it will follow through on commitments made back in 2000 to develop a community right-to-know bylaw involving the creation of a contaminated-sites database. Trouble is, after four years, it's gone nowhere, sitting stalled in bureaucratic tangles.
Then, of course, there's the provincial Liberal platform promise of 2003 that pledged to give Ontarians the right to know what hazardous materials are stored in their neighbourhoods. When asked how far we've moved on this, MOE spokesperson Art Chamberlain says, "We've started posting things like drive-clean inspections on the MOE Web site." Not quite what enviros were envisioning. Turns out there are no plans for a contaminated-site database. Oh well.
Churley says she's drafting right-to-know legislation. In the meantime, she adds, "No matter what the laws are, as convoluted as they may be, my position is if you're in a neighbourhood and you believe there's a threat to the health and safety of yourself and your children, you've got to pull the community together and demand that action be taken."
But a city of Toronto soil and water quality staffer who wishes to remain nameless says getting action from the government can be a torturous process. "Get a good lawyer who will figure out for a couple of hundred an hour how your community will find empowerment."