Friday, June 26, 2009

Site 41 - our burden for all time?

(Written for "Root Issues" in the Barrie Examiner)

There is strong opposition to Simcoe County's new North Simcoe landfill, formerly known as Site 41, now under construction. We know it sits above aquifers connected to water sources far and wide, containing remarkably pure water. No wonder many worry that this clean water could be contaminated by leachate from the landfill.

County Warden Tony Guergis and other defenders of Site 41 have repeatedly cited the engineering plan as rebuttal to this worry. But what does that plan actually promise, and why are activist Danny Beaton, the UN's Maude Barlow, Green Party leader Elizabeth May, Simcoe North MPP Garfield Dunlop, Ontario's Environmental Commissioner Gord Miller, even Dale Goldhawk all so concerned?

Site 41 features what is called an inward hydraulic gradient. Simply put, this means water naturally flows upward into the site, instead of draining down into the ground. If it leaked, water would leak in, rather than out. This is exploited to help prevent groundwater contamination. The plan is thus to draw water into the site, then treat it and release it into a stream or river.

If the plan is carefully designed and carried out flawlessly, this should work - but for how long, and at what cost? The useful life of the landfill would be at most 70 years, perhaps only half that, but the leachate is expected to be a hazard for well over a century. That means maintaining, operating, and most of all paying for pumping ("dewatering") and treating that water long after the landfill has closed. How happy will our great-grandchildren be paying to treat garbage we threw out before they were even born?

This duration is only a guess, however. Scientific models indicate that, after a century (or maybe two), the harm will have passed.

But no modern landfills have been around long enough to test these theories. We know that ancient garbage dumps - from centuries or even millennia ago - are still contaminating water today. Can we be so sure that ours will fade in a shorter time? What if we're still pumping in clean water for the dump to dirty, then treating it at the other end, a thousand years from now?

One thing we do know is our climate will be changing in unpredictable ways. Yet we can't be sure if it will get wetter or drier - if we'll have floods or droughts (or both). Climate change could affect groundwater flows - perhaps even to the extent of reversing the inward gradient. What then? (Answer: much more pumping).

But, most of all, how can we be certain that governments a century or millennium from today will be stable and wealthy enough to handle this? Very few governments - or even civilizations - have ever lasted for periods this long. In times of war, pandemic, economic or ecological collapse - will we still have resources to dedicate to this task, or will other priorities come first?

It would take only a few years of inattention for this site to turn into an environmental catastrophe - contaminating drinking water upon which thousands of people depend. Already we seem unable to keep roads in good repair, or preserve heritage buildings, at the peak of our economic growth.

Any engineering "solution" that relies on constant monitoring, interpretation and operation is vulnerable to future unknowns. It assumes the human component will always be present and up to the task - dangerous assumptions to rely upon.

The only things that reliably persist over such long times don't require constant maintenance. Take the Great Pyramids, for example. They need no workers or budgets to keep them standing because they are already in the natural shape of a hill of stone. It's actually much harder to knock them down than leave them up, so they stand even as their creators fade into myth.

Last fall, we were assured Canada would avoid recession and even have surplus budgets. We all know how that went. Now we're being sold a system that depends on having money, resources, and expertise on hand to constantly monitor and operate this landfill for the next century, or longer.

Can we trust our situation won't ever take a turn for the worse? That's a gamble I'd prefer we not take.

Erich Jacoby-Hawkins is a community activist on poverty issues, environmentalist with Living Green Barrie and founder of the Barrie Green Party.

A better style of politics in the North

(Written for "Root Issues" in the Barrie Examiner)

A recently-leaked quote from Natural Resources Minister Lisa Raitt has made headlines, but the real issue is being missed. Speaking about Health Minister Leona Aglukkaq, Raitt said, "She's such a capable woman, but it's hard for her to come out of a co-operative government into this rough-and-tumble. She had a question in the House ... that planked. I really hope she never gets anything hot."

What has been made of this by Opposition and pundits is the lack of full confidence Raitt seems to express in her cabinet colleague. But that kind of thing is natural in politics. The greater tragedy is the unquestioned acceptance that "rough-andtumble" is the natural state of things, and co-operative government is something to be put behind when moving to the national scene.

If anything, the opposite should be the case.

For those who (understandably) aren't familiar with Nunavut politics, here's some background: their territorial legislature is composed of 19 members who are each elected from districts in a first-past-the-post style, but without representing political parties. Once elected, they all serve together in the legislature -- no government vs. opposition benches. Together, they choose the premier and seven ministers of the Executive Council (cabinet) by secret ballot -- so that even if there were parties, there would be no way to "whip" the vote or force voting along party lines.

The Nunavut legislature uses consensus government (as does the Northwest Territories). Although the executive run the government, they are outnumbered by the rest of the members, so they cannot act alone. The premier does not appoint the ministers, so he or she cannot command their actions. Instead, each member works in the best interest of their constituents, portfolio, and the public.

Contrast this with how the House governs Canada. We now have four sitting parties, none of whom has held a majority of seats since 2004 and none of whom has had a majority of votes since 1984. Each treats Question Period as a chance to score points, rather than a way to raise important issues or share key information.

Committees, where much of the multi-partisan policy work used to be done, have been subverted through obstructionism and filibuster. Collaboration or compromise have become things of the past; each party stakes out their own position independently and follows a "my way or the highway" approach. Each motion that passes or fails is seen as a "win" or a "loss" for various parties; the public need, if considered, comes a distant second.

Can a large, populous or diverse nation be governed in a cooperative manner? I would wonder the converse -- does it make any sense for such a diverse country to be run by a single party, a one-party cabinet, or just a prime minister? Most democracies around the world, large and small, are in fact run by multi-party majority coalitions who share cabinet, reach consensus among themselves, and represent a wide spectrum of their electorate.

Does Nunavut's lack of "rough-and- tumble" politics lead to a lack of public interest? Quite the opposite. Voter turnout in 2008 was 71 per cent -- far greater than our own provincial or federal elections. (And this among one of the world's most spread-out populations). It would seem that people prefer to vote for co-operative, consensus government -- and are turned off (and away from the polls) by partisanship.

I dream that our current House could see Minister Aglukkaq's capable experience as something to draw upon and emulate, rather than something to disparage. Canada would be well served by a Parliament that put governing ahead of partisan advantage or electioneering.
Money squandered on attack ads could instead be used informing the public. "Secret" documents describing government spending could be turned into information that feeds discussion, not just something to be withheld or exposed for political advantage. Parties could come together on improving EI, instead of jockeying to see which competing plan "wins."

I think the True North has something to teach us all.

Erich Jacoby-Hawkins is a community activist on poverty issues, environmentalist with Living Green Barrie and founder of the Barrie Green Party.
Special thanks to Eric Walton for inspiring this article.