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Ontario’s environmental commissioner backs closing a controversial landfill and warns public’s right to oppose projects must be safeguarded

Gordon Miller, the Environmental Commissioner of Ontario, delivered his annual report at Queen's Park on October 6.


Gordon Miller, the Environmental Commissioner of Ontario, delivered his annual report at Queen’s Park on October 6.

A group of citizens and members of the Mohawks of the Bay of Quinte were at the press conference to show support for the Commissioner’s decision to recommend that the government immediately close a large landfill site in Richmond, near Napanee east of Belleville along Lake Ontario.

The landfill opened in 1954 and has five cells, none of which meet current regulations. The operator wanted to expand it from 125,000 tonnes to 750,000 tonnes, but was refused permission by the Ministry of the Environment in 2006. Now the Mohawk and concerned citizens want it closed and sealed, citing odour problems and concerns about leachate, and using studies by XCG Consultants to back their position.

At the press conference, Miller said that the site location for the landfill is “perhaps one of the worst.” He said it sits on fractured limestone, making it almost impossible to monitor and control leachate. Local residents and farmers use the groundwater in that area.

The commissioner also talked about his concerns over a liability “chill” that is “creeping in” to the public review process for developments. This chill is following a recent case where local activists opposed to development near Lake Simcoe were sued by the developer on the basis that they caused a nuisance by continually opposing its plans.

Though the developer was unsuccessful in its suit, Miller said that he’s hearing that many citizens are being advised to consider carefully before mounting opposition to developments, because they may become embroiled in litigation. They then decide “it’s not worth losing their homes,” Miller said. He’s concerned because the chilling effect “is a direct threat to a piece of legislation I’m in charge of defending,” referring to the Environmental Bill of Rights which gives the right to members of the public to participate in decisions that effect the environment.

Miller suggested that Ontario should move in the direction that Quebec and certain U.S. states have taken to introduce protections for the public against liability for speaking out, such as strict rules on cost awards, and reversing the onus of proof.

Miller also commented on recent transit proposals, including the controversy that had blown up in Toronto over the government’s decision to go ahead with a diesel rail extension to Pearson Airport from downtown. Local residents near the line want an electrified line to cut down on emissions.

Miller said he prefers electrified lines, but realizes they require a lot of infrastructure that Ontario doesn’t have at present.

Being pro-public transit, Miller’s report also approves of Ontario’s streamlining of approvals for transit projects. But he also said he has reservations — particularly that there is no system of classifying transit projects to identify what type of environmental review they need, so that small projects receive the same attention as large ones. Also, he believes alternatives should still be considered for each case, because “Fundamentally, the goal should not be an increase in transit projects, but a substantial increase in transit usage which is accomplished through effective overall transit planning.”