Canada is a haven for US hazardous waste

Canadian imports have increased five-fold between 1993 and 1998, says a new report examining changes in the generation, management and shipment of hazardous wastes in the United States, Mexico and Canada since the birth of the North Atlantic Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA).

The Generation and Management of Hazardous Wastes and Transboundary Hazardous Waste Shipments between Mexico, Canada and the United States, compiled by groups from the three nations found that most of the waste is destined for Québec, with more than 330,000 tonnes in 1999, the last year for which figures are available, and Ontario, with 324,000 tonnes. The principal hazardous wastes imported are heavy metals, solvents, and sludges.

The report, by the US research body, Texas Center for Policy Studies (TCPS), the Canadian Institute for Environmental Law and Policy (CIELAP) and the Mexican organisation, Proyecto Emisiones, found that US shipments of hazardous waste shot up in 1994 when it introduced tough treatment standards. It also discovered that since NAFTA came into force in 1994, some hazardous waste generators from states such as New York, Michigan and Ohio began to export wastes to landfills, incinerators and treatment facilities in Canada. Although exports have increased to both Canada and Mexico, Mexico receives less than half the amount of US hazardous waste as Canada because, despite allowing the import of hazardous waste materials for recycling, including metals such as dust from electric arc furnace steel mills and lead from batteries, prohibits their import for storage or final disposal.

Whereas Canada allows the open-pit dumping of untreated hazardous waste, the United States requires that such material be processed to reduce its toxicity before disposal. “The most surprising finding of our report was the increase of hazardous waste shipments from the US to Canada which appear to be occurring due to the lack of environmental standards and enforcement in the provinces of Ontario and Québec,” commented the TCPS’ author of the report, Cyrus Reed.

“What we are seeing is a fairly classic pollution-haven effect,” added co-author Mark Winfield, of CIELAP. “US wastes are being brought to Canada because they can be disposed more cheaply and more easily than is the case south of the border.” The report states that although specific data on waste disposal pricing is difficult to obtain, it has been suggested that costs in Canada may be between one-half and one-tenth those in the US. “This is thought to be due to higher US treatment standards,” the report said.

When American companies wish to export hazardous waste to Canada, they must get approval from the federal government, which in turn asks the province where the waste is destined to go if it is willing to accept the material. The report notes that Ontario’s environment minister waived the province’s right of prior informed consent on waste shipments from 1997 to 1999 but ended this practice when one landfill which was not licensed for hazardous waste began to accept it. In addition, the Canadian Environment Industry Association has said that the regulated import and export of hazardous waste and hazardous recyclable materials will protect Canada’s environment, and is essential for sustaining sectors of the waste management industry (see related story). The report also found that the Canadian provinces of Alberta, British Columbia, Manitoba, and New Brunswick also accepted hazardous waste imports, but in far small quantities.

The report also found that there has been an ongoing concentration of economic activity, including hazardous waste management, in the U.S.-Mexico border region, with the highest concentration in Texas, and also a significant increase in both the generation of hazardous waste and the number of commercial hazardous waste management facilities located in northern Mexico. In the northern United States, however, there has been a general decline in the generation and management of hazardous waste, corresponding with growth over the border.

“The other important finding was quite simply the lack of basic knowledge of hazardous waste generation in Mexico and Canada and the lack of shared information regarding hazardous waste shipments among the NAFTA countries,” Reed added. The report also says Mexico has tough environmental rules on paper, but that regulations are not well enforced. All three countries, it said, could do a better job of reporting and tracking the hazardous waste they produce and should reopen negotiations on transboundary environmental impact assessments.

The report also discusses recent NAFTA-related arbitration cases such as the controversial decision last year against the government of Mexico, which awarded Metalclad, a US company, US $16 million, after the company challenged to Mexico’s denial of a hazardous waste landfill permit.

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