KIRKLAND LAKE -- It's worse than even its staunchest opponents can imagine, another water disaster waiting to happen. Think Walkerton. Think a thousand times bigger. Three hundred million gallons of contaminated groundwater a year, to be exact.
As the Tories reel from the latest deaths in that southern Ontario city, news came this week that the American outfit whose Canuck subsidiary has been picked to treat tons of T.O.'s waste here at Adams Mine is the owner of an unimpressive environmental record south of the border -- a repeat offender, in fact.
But there's more. Permits to contaminate and then treat millions of litres of water at the mine are likely to be approved by the Ministry of the Environment without giving locals and concerned citizens the customary 30 days required by law to comment.
Wash garbage Why the rush on to push the project through?
No other landfill project has tried to pump and treat contaminated groundwater on such a scale.
"There's no other instance where they plan to use this volume of water to simply wash garbage," says Brennain Lloyd of North Bay environmental group Northwatch.
If all goes according to plan, the pumps will have to work night and day for 120 years after the dump has closed. Then there will be an ongoing maintenance obligation for a further 1,000 years.
It's the kind of project that would seem to warrant public input. In Ontario, this process is handled by postings on the Environmental Bill of Rights (EBR) registry. The ministry provides an outline of the project and generally allows for a 30-day comment period.
Untried technology This doesn't appear to be the case in this instance. According to ministry spokesperson John Parks, water permits for the Adams Mine do not require public comment -- even though the leachate pumping technology that will be employed here has never been tried on so large a scale.
"These issues were already dealt with at the environmental assessment," says Parks.
The only problem with Parks's position is that the issue of groundwater contamination was excluded from the issues examined during the Adams Mine hearings.
When it came time for an environmental assessment of the proposal, the three-person panel assigned to the task only addressed whether the computer models shown them for the hydraulic containment systems were feasible.
Lloyd, who attended the 15 days of hearings, says groundwater contamination was just one of numerous contentious issues excluded from the proceedings.
"We had an assessment without the environment," she says.
Parks says that even if the issues were excluded from the EA hearing, the public could have found a consultant's report among ministry documents.
NDP environment critic Marilyn Churley says any attempt by the ministry to push water permits through without proper public input borders on "madness" -- especially when Waste Management Inc., the U.S. parent of Canadian Waste Services, the outfit that would be in charge of the pumping and treatment of groundwater at the Adams Mine -- has a spotty environmental record south of the border.
"And this in the wake of Walkerton," says Churley. "Have we gone nuts?"
The list of WMI's eco transgressions is long, including charges of illegal dumping of medical waste, hiding environmental problems related to landfill sites from the public and liability for cleanup costs at problem landfill sites.
Charges against the company extend to its officials and include wiretapping opponents of landfill expansion, computer fraud, the rigging of landfill contracts and improper attempts to influence public officials.
Canadian Waste Services has been telling local media that its environmental record in Canada is spotless.
When contacted by NOW, the company referred calls about the outstanding water permits to Gordon McGuinty, the dump's main proponent, who did not return a call to his office Wednesday.
The Adams Mine dump proposal, meanwhile, looks more and more like a disaster waiting to happen.
Unlike conventional landfills that are built in clay soil with thick plastic liners to limit contact with the water table, the Adams Mine is a series of fractured rock pits sunk 300 feet into the water table.
To deal with the constant flow of groundwater into the pits -- three hundred million litres every year -- the dump would rely on a "hydraulic containment" system. The contaminated groundwater would be collected by a pumping system, treated at surface and then flushed back into the ground through an artificial wetland. The effluent would end up in the nearby Misema River.
Why is the Ministry of the Environment taking a seemingly laissez- faire attitude?
Ministry guidelines specifically exclude sites like the Adams Mine from use as dumps.
"A disposal facility may not be supported in a location where the ability of the natural environment to attenuate contaminants is weak," the guidelines say. "It's inappropriate to rely on engineered facilities to compensate for a lack of natural protection."
Vocal supporter The project has been embroiled in controversy, including allegations of Tory interference, since it was first hatched in 1989. Premier Harris himself has long been a vocal supporter.
The contract to haul garbage by rail to the mine is expected to stabilize jobs at the struggling Ontario Northland Railway -- which just happens to be big business in the premier's riding.
Parks says the ministry may refer Adams Mine documents to a citizen review committee created after the environmental assessment hearing in Kirkland Lake.
That group, however, seems to be a bit of a mystery to the citizen groups that have been active in the Adams Mine debate until now.
Anti-dump activist Charlie Angus is the editor of HighGrader