Thursday, August 6, 2009

Keeping it out of sight, or out of Site 41?

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

The struggle continues to prevent what may be a colossal mistake in Tiny Township. Protesters warn of the costs, risks and likely failures if dump Site 41 is created, while local government, backed by Premier Dalton McGuinty, rely on studies and reports to defend it.

Certainly, this is a decision that should be based on science -- along with a healthy dose of prudence and skepticism. Yet is that being done? It seems that the science is being kept out of sight. This is never a good sign.

What is at issue is water. Located atop some of the world's cleanest water, Site 41 could threaten drinking water for humans and natural species. The engineering of the site, held up as the way to prevent such harm, is based on measurements and predictions of water flows. The only way this operation could possibly be safe is if those measurements and predictions are accurate.
The standard way to test the accuracy of science is through reproducibility. Other experts must be able to make the same measurements and tests and come up with the same results, or at least review the measurements and raw data.

If computer modelling is used to make predictions, then that model must be subject to examination, comment, criticism, and modification where necessary. Yet in this case, the information is being held secret, despite an order from the Information and Privacy Commissioner that it be revealed. This is a red flag.

This study was not done by the government, it was done by private consultants. Both local and provincial governments are now relying on those results -- even though the details remain confidential, unproven and untested. There is always a tendency for consultants to produce reports that favour the needs of the client.

The consulting firm, Jagger Hims, is now owned by Genivar, a company hired to support Site 41. This makes a clear conflict of interest -- they won't want any contrary information to get out. The "proprietary information" excuse for refusing to release the data is rather flimsy, since the MODFLOW software is in wide use in the industry. If there truly is demonstrable harm to the contractor, would it not be worth compensating them in order to get access to this data? Surely that's much cheaper than the cost of a toxic dump failure.

There are indications that the measurements and data may be flawed -- which would create a flawed result. These must be addressed, not swept under the rug.

In a modern era of information, science and the Internet, when we should expect more transparency, we get less. Local officials have even tried to cancel meetings of the Community Monitoring Committee (CMC) mandated to discuss issues around Site 41 and gone so far as to sue one of the members for $160,000. Yet she is clearly doing her job -- representing the community her committee is accountable to. If anything, she is representing them better than some of their elected representatives are.

The continuing attempts by the county and now province to prevent the release and proper, independent study of this information is reprehensible, but, sadly, not surprising.

At the federal level, such obfuscation has become standard. Over the past three years, our federal government has removed information from public view, sought to suppress scientific reports which contradict partisan messages, and muzzled government experts.

It should perhaps come as no surprise that our provincial and local governments are now following suit. The feds ignore "inconvenient" facts and fire scientific advisors, the province ignores their own Environment and Information Commissioners, and the county ignores (and sues) the CMC. Consistent from top to bottom.

Our tax dollars paid for this information; we have a right to see it. We must continue to pressure our elected representatives to follow due diligence and put a one-year moratorium on completing Site 41 until all these issues can be resolved. We must make them know (and remind them often) that anything less will get them thrown out of office come the 2010 and 2011 elections.

The era of zero waste is in sight, when dumps will be unnecessary. Government must recognize that now and wind up existing dumps, not build new ones.

Erich Jacoby-Hawkins is a teacher, father, volunteer, and politician.

No comments:

Post a Comment