This article was originally published in Maclean’s magazine on August 21, 2000. Partner content is not updated.
Toronto's Trash to Kirkland Lake
A slim, dark-haired man glares across the overflowing town council meeting and growls: "Why don't you shut up for a change?" The middle-aged woman had been speaking out against the proposal to haul two decades' worth of Toronto's garbage 590 km north by train to an abandoned mine just outside Kirkland Lake, a blue-collar Ontario town near the border with Quebec. On the street, an elderly woman whispers dark thoughts about some of the people involved. An earnest young man in a local coffee shop insists that the environmental impact of the Adams Mine pit-turned-garbage-dump is minimal - if only you read the facts. Another woman, in a doctor's waiting room, leans forward conspiratorially and rubs her fingers against her thumb. "Money," she says simply. "They're all making money from this."
Depending on whom you talk to in this modest town of 9,905, "they" range from town councillors to local business owners to Toronto politicians and even environmentalists who produced the $7-million, 1997 assessment of the great Toronto garbage proposal. Faced with the imminent closure of its Keele Valley landfill site, just north of the city in an area of sprawling new subdivisions, Toronto city council recently accepted a billion-dollar scheme from the Rail Cycle North consortium - a group that proposes to haul by rail 20 million tonnes of Toronto's waste - at a cost to the city of approximately $50-a-tonne over 20 years, to Ontario's North. The garbage will be dumped into an open-air pit 28 km from the Ontario-Quebec border. If things went terribly wrong, bacteria from Toronto's trash would surface in Lake Timiskaming, a body of water that flows southeasterly into the Ottawa River. The effects of groundwater contamination at what would be one of North America's largest dumps might reach as far south as Ottawa or Montreal.
The proposal has been around for nearly a decade. But Toronto's official acceptance on Aug. 2 has sparked a sudden catfight between provincial politicians in Quebec and Ontario, eager to maintain the sanctity of their respective water supplies. It has also riled up Toronto city councillors, many of them embarrassed at shipping their garbage to someone else's backyard. And Fidele Baril, the mayor of Notre-Dame-du-Nord, a small village on the Quebec side of the watershed, wants the Quebec government to do its own environmental assessment of the plan.
Still, the most bitter fight is in Kirkland Lake itself, where the issue divides families, friends and neighbours. The "Mile of Gold" - the town's moniker from its glittery heyday in the 1930s - is now the "Mile of Garbage," cry residents. But the deal's supporters fight back with accusations of ignorance, small-mindedness and jealousy. Four individuals, including the president of the local chamber of commerce, have asked Mayor Richard Denton to resign after he broke council ranks and spoke out against the project that they, as a council, have so vigorously supported. Two visions of a community struggling to free itself from its mining past are at war for all to see.
Kirkland Lake is not a pretty town. Old buildings with warped roofs and stained siding line the main street. "For sale," "Reduced" and "For rent" signs are in the windows of abandoned homes and stores. The lake, tiny and hidden behind commercial concrete, was filled with mining tailings years ago and only recent dredging has renewed its status as a body of water. This northern community has no pretensions to charm - it was built out of necessity, catering to the thousands of workers employed by the gold and iron ore operations and named for an official with the provincial mining ministry. But only two mines are still operating now and unemployment is almost three times the provincial average, leaving many people desperate for some kind of economic security. But for others: "I've never felt so passionate about an issue in my life," said Barbara Bukowski, a retired teacher. "This is consuming every minute of my day." Wearing an anti-Adams Mine T-shirt, Bukowski handed out buttons and orange armbands in support of the mayor last week and argued for the only solution she feels makes sense: a referendum.
Ten years ago, when the garbage deal was first proposed by the owner of the former iron ore mine, North Bay's Notre Development Corp., people jumped at the chance for jobs: 150 were supposed to be created, the number has since dwindled to around 80. Many saw the businesses that make up Rail Cycle North, as "the saviour," says Mayor Denton. But, he adds, with the recent water contamination tragedy in Walkerton, Ont., where six people died of a bacterial outbreak, and with the Ontario ministry of environment suffering cutbacks, "there is not the trust in the system that was there before." The closed mine is 20 minutes from Denton's downtown office. The south pit, the one approved to receive the garbage, is the largest of three owned by Notre. More than half of the 200-m-deep pit is filled with water - the result of rain, snow and some groundwater working its way up through the fractured rock. Therein lie the concerns of the anti-Adams Mine proponents. If water can work its way in, they say, then contaminated water can work its way out - and into the wells and lakes and drinking water of anyone farther south.
Under the Notre plan, the pit will be lined with rocks but the waste water accumulating at the bottom will be pumped out and treated. The proposal includes plans to build an educational eco-centre at the site. Methane gas and organic waste from the dump may be turned into a fuel to support other industry. But, "this fighting is going to scare away other potential suitors and we can't afford that," observed Mike Guimond, a Kirkland Lake businessman. "For 60 years, the mines have been dumping tailings into our lakes. I don't see anybody glowing in the dark south of us."
Gordon McGuinty, president of Notre, is firm on the subject: "Ten years ago, when we first proposed this deal, we were very plain that this would be very divisive," he says. But the consortium feels it has responded to its critics. One of the conditions for approval, says McGuinty, is a full-time, on-site inspector to report daily to the province. But there is no middle ground on this issue in Kirkland Lake. Toronto's garbage will either reinvigorate the community, infusing it with cash and prosperity, or it will destroy the character and purity of the environment, ruining the reasons why people live in the North. And both sides vow to fight the good fight - even if it tears the community apart.
Maclean's August 21, 2000