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.

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