Canada: US exporting hazardous waste north thanks to lax laws

The Canadian Environment Minister has been asked by an environmental NGO to invoke the Basel Convention on Hazardous Waste to slow down the province of Ontario's imports of hazardous waste from the US.

“We deliberately dropped this in [Environment Minister, David] Anderson’s lap, by mentioning the Basel Convention,” Mark Winfield, director of research at the Canadian Institute for Environmental Law and Policy (CIELAP), told edie.

CIELAP wants the Federal Government to confront the fact that US exports of hazardous waste to Canada have ballooned from 56,000 tonnes in 1993 to 288, 000 tonnes in 1998. It is primarily the provinces of Ontario and Québec that receive the hazardous waste imports from the US.

In a letter to David Anderson dated 29 February, CIELAP states that “this increase in imports arises from increasingly strict disposal standards in the United States, and implementation of more lax standards in Ontario”. In recent years, US air emission standards for waste incinerators have been tightened and a prohibition placed on the land disposal of untreated hazardous waste.

The last half of the 1990s did not see a similar tightening of environmental legislation in Ontario or Québec. In terms of Ontario, “the provincial regulatory framework essentially stopped in 1985”, says Winfield, who argues that the present Ontario Government has pursued expansion of the hazardous waste industry at the expense of environmental regulation. In 1995, one third of the staff at Ontario’s Ministry for Environment was cut and CIELAP says it has seen a letter written in February 1997 by the Ontario Environment Minister telling the Federal Government that the province would accept any type of hazardous waste from the US.

The Federal Government issues permits for hazardous waste imports, but leaves it to the provinces to decide what type of materials they each will accept.

At least one case of hazardous waste from the US being illegally disposed of as non-hazardous waste in an Ontario landfill site has been uncovered, with other cases of leaching at landfill sites and high PCB emission levels at waste incinerators being recorded.

“The current situation in Ontario raises the question of whether the standard of ‘environmentally sound management’ established by the Basel Convention is being met,” states CIELAP’s letter to the Federal Environment Minister. According to Winfield, Canada’s Auditor General reported in 1997 that there is currently no way of knowing whether Canada is complying with the Basel Convention (see related story).

Asked whether the Ontario public is concerned about hazardous waste imports from the US, Winfield says they are: “It’s mainly the embarrassment factor that resonates – the fact we’re being used as a cheap and easy dumping ground.”

Meanwhile, the Canadian Environmental Industry Association is denying that it has a position on the issue. Articles in the Canadian daily The Globe & Mail have suggested that CEIA is worried about the carcinogenic components of some of the waste being imported, but a CEIA spokesperson told edie the organisation’s views have been misrepresented. “We’ve been trying to put this fire out since the story first ran. The association does not have a position on this issue yet.” The CEIA spokesperson said that its next National Policy Forum meeting, to be held on 17 March, would probably see the beginning of a debate on the subject but reaching a formal position will take some time.

Canada’s Environment Minister has yet to respond formally to CIELAP’s letter, but an informal discussion between the minister and the institute has taken place.

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