Trafficking in Toxins

Rating: NNNNNkirkland lake -- toronto mayhave voted against shipping its garbage to Adams Mine in Kirkland Lake last year, but.

Rating: NNNNN

kirkland lake — toronto mayhave voted against shipping its garbage to Adams Mine in Kirkland Lake last year, but that doesn’t seem to have foiled the foolhardy. Now T.O. finds itself in the middle of another toxic plan to foul our neighbours to the north.It turns out the big smoke has more polluted soil than it knows what to do with along the lakefront and in and around abandoned industrial sites. Not to mention the Ontario government, which itself harbours close to 100,000 tonnes of PCBs.

And one smooth-talking waste entrepreneur thinks he know what to do with it. John Bennett, the former chief engineer for Monsanto UK, has come calling with a plan to build an incinerator in the beleaguered northern town so he can burn soil contaminated with some of the most hazardous chemicals known to humankind.

He thinks his plan to feed the incinerator with toxic soils from down the road will pump Kirkland Lake’s commercial viability, and he thinks we ought to be grateful.

Bennett might also have been able to bring PCB-contaminated waste to Kirkland Lake from Superfund sites in the U.S. like Love Canal and the Valley of the Drums in Kentucky if it weren’t for the Yanks’ import and export ban on PCBs.

However, those restrictions don’t preclude the export from the U.S. of other persistent organic pollutants (POPs), including dioxins, which are even more toxic than PCBs. According to Bennett’s 2000 annual report, the U.S. market in the disposal of contaminated soils is estimated to be worth some $2.8 billion (U.S.). Bennett’s company intends to sell what’s left of the soil after it’s burned as spread for landfill.

Over the phone from his offices in Vancouver, Bennett says area residents shouldn’t be worried about any adverse health or environmental risks.

“I’ve personally washed my hands in PCBs,” he says matter-of-factly. “They aren’t something we should get that alarmed about.”

He says worries raised by Public Concern Timiskaming about his company’s plan to deposit 80,000 tonnes of treated solids a year for the next 25 years as fill in the Archer Drive subdivision in Kirkland Lake are “not scientific.’

Something, he says, has to be done with the contaminated soils before harmful toxins seep into the water table. And incinerators are the most efficient method.

“Your car, I can tell you, your wood stove or a cigarette emits far worse (unburned material) than our incinerator,’ Bennett says. “It’s hard to get people to believe that, because when they look at our proposal they see a big stack.”

But Paul Connett, a chemistry professor at St. Lawrence University in Canton, New York, and an outspoken opponent of Bennett’s plans, insists the health risks, particularly from dioxin, are enormous.

Bennett’s proposal, he says, amounts to “throwing a hand grenade in our biological mechanisms.” The biggest threat is to agriculture, particularly to dairy herds, which absorb contaminants present in the environment at a mind-boggling rate and then pass them on to humans. One cow, he says, can put as much dioxin in its body in one day as it would take a human to breathe in 14 years.

“The last place you want to put an incinerator is anywhere near agriculture,” Connett says. Which is just what Bennett is doing. His incinerator, if approved, would sit some 30 kilometres from prime dairy land.

John Vanthof, a local dairy farmer who has been following the Bennett proposal, says area farmers didn’t know the company was looking to import dioxin-contaminated materials.

“I knew business would be coming in from the U.S., but there was never any mention before of dioxin-contaminated soil that I remember. When I heard “dioxin,’ I cringed.”

Agricultural losses to dioxin are well documented. In 1999, a mere 50 milligrams of dioxin contamination caused losses of $3 billion U.S. to the Belgian agricultural industry.

In the Abertville region of France, cows are being slaughtered due to dioxin contamination from a nearby incinerator. With agriculture a $100- million-a-year business in Timiskaming, Vanthof says area farmers are growing increasingly concerned about the scope of Bennett’s plans.

What has locals doubly spooked is another incinerator like the one proposed for Kirkland Lake run by Bennett Environmental in St. Ambroise, Quebec. Studies conducted recently at the site showed low levels of heavy metal contamination. Bennett says, “They could have come from anywhere. We wouldn’t be licensed if we were throwing out toxic materials.”

Bennett CEO Danny Ponn has described the technology that’ll be used in the incinerator as “state of the art.”

Other experts in the field, though, have expressed reservations. The burning process will not be able to get rid of the heavy metals in the soil, and burning produces hundreds of unknown compounds.

And according to the company’s own filing with the Security Exchange Commission, the Kirkland Lake facility will rely on used equipment from the U.S.

Bennett has been flogging his incinerator plans for years. In the early 90s, the company was turned down in several communities in BC including Fort St. John, Golden, Abbotsford/Sumac and Taylor. They were also turned down in Pittsfield, Massachusetts.

Not so in Kirkland Lake. In fact, Bennett was actually invited to set up shop by the town council, which is unanimously behind the proposal.

Mayor Bill Enouy did not respond to requests for comment. NDP environment critic Marilyn Churley’s criticism of the project has unleashed a flood of anger and nasty e-mails from some locals who say the facility will bring much-needed jobs.

For Churley, however, the 40 or so jobs the plant will create seem piddling compared to the potential risks, particularly to local agriculture.

She says Tory changes to the environmental assessment process limit consideration of alternative locations for the incinerator.

Local Liberal MPP David Ramsay, meanwhile, is noncommittal. He says it’s unfortunate that the “extremely desperate” economic situation “has made considering potentially dangerous proposals like this necessary.”

Ramsay, though, is not prepared to come out against the project. Sources say he’s quietly supporting it.

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